Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 15, 2017
Latin History for Morons by John Leguizamo. Directed by Tony Taccone. Set design by Rachel Hauck. Lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols. Original music and sound design by Bray Poor. Cast: John Leguizamo.
Armed with a blackboard, chalk, and a stage filled with stacks of reference materials (the ransacked-library look is by Rachel Hauck), Mr. Leguizamo is eager to set the record straight with respect to the contributions of the Mayans, the Incas, the Aztecs, and the Tainos, whose long-established civilizations were wiped out by the genocidal conquistadors and whose stories have been relegated to short and inaccurate paragraphs in the history books (one of which he angrily rips up during the course of the show).
In an evening marked by a wild maze of tangential asides (Leguizamo frequently pauses to ask the audience: "so, where was I?"), we actually do benefit from what he has learned from sources such as Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States or the biographies of little known Individuals like the Cuban-born Loreta Velázquez, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve as a Confederate soldier during the American Civil War. All of these stories are told in Leguizamo's inimitable style that incorporates hilarious reenactments, impressions, and a steady stream of obscenity-laden one-liners in both English and Spanish, which he tosses out like trinkets pouring from an exploding piñata.
But amidst the twisting trail of history and the blitz of punch lines, there lies another tale altogether. Turns out, the beating heart of the show is the story of a loving father who is doing his hapless best to be supportive of his son, a bullied eighth grader he calls "Buddy." Indeed, all of the research he has been engaged in has been in order to help Buddy with a "heroes" project he has been assigned to do for one of his classes. Leguizamo is on a mission to find a suitable Latino hero for his son after one of his classmates "had the cojones to call him a beaner.'" This cuts to the quick. Leguizamo is floored that Buddy, whom he clearly adores and wants to protect, is "going through the same racial rite of passage as I did."
It is in talking about Buddy, as well as about his wife and teenage daughter, that Leguizamo unexpectedly brings to mind another comic, Billy Crystal (albeit, a Billy Crystal with a potty mouth), whose family-centered stories are suffused with affection. When Leguizamo speaks of or imitates the members of his family, the humor and the mimicry are of a much gentler sort. They are his corazón, the recipients of his love. He refers to his teenage daughter in a tone of awe as "part angel and part spy. She's always on her headphones and always texting but somehow manages to know everything that's going on in the house." His Jewish wife is a font of advice ("she's very intolerant of intolerance") who encourages him to help Buddy through his difficult time at school.
But it is Buddy who is so beautifully portrayed by Leguizamo that you almost think of him as an actual onstage character. He is a typical young adolescent, sometimes willing to spend time with his dad, while at other times arguing with him or slamming the bedroom door in his face. It doesn't help that Leguizamo often puts his foot in his mouth when talking to Buddy. There is, for example, a very funny bit where he is explaining to Buddy what it means to be a hero: "One, don't be a dick! Two, don't be an a-hole! Three, don't be a pussy!" While these nouns have long ago lost their ability to shock, Leguizamo's flyaway mind leads him to drawing an anatomical rendering of each of them on the board and then launching into a sex-ed talk with his son that gets more than a little raunchy. Funny, but, whew, "Don't tell your Mom!" Erase. Erase. Erase. (Not to worry. It all works out in the end, as Buddy learns to take his father's advice with a grain of salt and figures things out for himself.)
Leguizamo has been performing Latin History for Morons since its initial workshop production in La Jolla in April of 2016, and this incarnation is an uptown move from a run at the Public Theater, where I first saw it this past spring. Thanks to his tireless energy and the support of director Tony Taccone, everything (other than a couple of recently-inserted too-easy shots at Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey) seems fresh, including the performer's trademark dance moves (all authentic, he assures us, including the Inca dances). Even if you aren't already among the legions of whooping Leguizamo fans who have turned up at both shows I attended off and on Broadway, you are likely to be among the converted by the time you leave.