John Leguizamo’s one-man play Latin History for Morons should be part of the syllabus of every school in America - North, Central and South. The sooner all kids and their parents realize the enormous, largely unrecognized contributions of Latinx in the Americas, the more appreciation we’ll all have for each other. For goodness sake, they have been speaking Spanish here long before English. Never mind that the Spanish-speaking conquistadors ravaged the glories of the mighty Maya and the ingenious Inca, whose feats in government and engineering, among others, were remarkable.
To infuse some pride in his bullied son, Leguizamo embarked on some research into his ancestors’ journey through time. Director Tony Taccone confirmed, “He wanted to give his son some verbal ammunition to defend himself.” What he cobbled together in his research he has presented in a nearly two-hour love, laugh and learn-fest that broke attendance records in cerebral Berkeley and resulted in extended runs at home in NYC.
Assuming the role of teacher (and ten other characters), clad in a sport coat, tie and vest, with a large two-sided chalkboard in the middle of the stage and books, in drawers, boxes and piles spread around for him to refer to, he convincingly presented his case. Latinx are the equal of any other tribe on the planet - that is, their architecture, their food production, their literature, their music, their art and their accomplishments in a broad field of endeavor.
He spelled ‘ColumbAss’ on the chalkboard and ridiculed the notion that he discovered America, pointing out he never even set foot on the continent of what we now call the United States. As for the contributions of his fellow bloodthirsty conquistadors, Cortes and his cousin Pizarro, the avaricious thieves and their sailors contributed malaria and syphilis, among other blights, which decimated 90% of the 73,000,000 natives spread across the Americas.
He asked, “Why Is European art called fine art, while Latin art is called folk art?” The conquistadors melted into coins magnificent artwork crafted in gold, 500,000 tons of which they stole and sailed back to Europe. He imagined a couple in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence admiring Michelangelo’s marble David, where the wife says to her husband, “Larry, look at that statue. It would make a lovely marble kitchen counter.”
Until the last two generations, Latinx had hardly seen themselves in media, except as drug dealers, mustachioed menaces, buffoons and conniving sexpots. “If you don’t see yourself represented outside yourself, you feel invisible,” he asserted. So, he instigated a personal “intellectual jihad” and became a “ghetto scholar” to prop up the psyche of his harried son. During the course of the narrative, however, he gradually loses the trust of his son who, spurred on by dad, gets suspended for punching his tormentor in the face.
With the flexibility and slapstick sensibility of Charlie Chaplin, the adroit verbal gymnastics, hilarious hubris and the gift of character portrayal of Robin Williams, the occasional self-denigration of Rodney Dangerfield and the expert timing of them all, Leguizamo delivered sublime edutainment. At times, he balanced the madcap hijinks with readings from the three most illuminating books (of the dozens) he researched: Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Professor Howard Zinn’s People’s History of The United States and Charles Mann’s 1491.
Is he ready for Dancing With The Stars? I don’t know but the women in the audience were whooping it up as he executed with panache some pretty deft tango, salsa, merengue, samba and cha cha steps.
Leguizamo is immensely talented and very funny, not to mention, in this production, foul-mouthed. Although I got used to it (and didn’t mind it, to begin with), I had to question the efficacy of the f-word, liberally used 100 times. Not that I am a prude, merely that one of his missions, I believe, is to praise and celebrate the achievements (including by language, I would presume) of his people. But I guess that is part of his ghetto scholar schtick. In any case, not a big deal.
About his genius for mimicry, he shifted dizzily and brilliantly between his parents, his Jewish wife, his hyper-aware daughter, his confused son, his uncle, the school principal, the bully’s very white father, the bully and the best of all, his erudite smug therapist, pompously slouching sideways in his office chair with his legs crossed dissecting Leguizamo’s condition with acute blasé accuracy. It was spot on genius - the acting, the dialogue and the inflection.
Leguizamo has earned an exalted, if not very famous, place in our pantheon of humorists. He does it all, although it has not been easy. Decades ago, his Caucasian acting colleagues from NYU got five auditions a week - for Shakespeare and roles as doctors and lawyers. He got one a month - for a drug dealer. Industry people urged him to change his vowel-laden name and walk in the shade to keep the color of his skin pale.
Unashamed, he resisted and persisted and, instead, wrote his own material, his own stories. The first, Mambo Mouth, he staged in the hallway of a theater with 70 fold up chairs, which he had to vacate by 8 p.m., so patrons could enter to attend the play in the main theater. Imagine their surprise when Al Pacino and Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller and Madonna, JFK Jr. and Olympia Dukakis and John Malkovich, attended various shows.
Leguizamo didn’t know “how many amazing things Latinx people have contributed to the world - the Americas and the US.” Now he does and he’s slinging it with aplomb, with heart and the most disarming weapon of all, humor. Lots of it.
In the last scene of Morons Leguizamo, as his son, is on stage addressing the assembly at his eighth-grade graduation. Somewhat nervously, he stutters as he struggles with the assignment to reveal who his hero is. With a ponderous pause - and the theater stone silent, a single spotlight enveloping only him - he finally summons the courage and says, “Me”.
Which is to say, Dad has ultimately succeeded in inculcating confidence in his beloved son, over whom he has doted and fretted the whole performance.
Bring the kids, bring the old folks, bring the neighbors, bring your enemies to the “self-professed outgoing introvert and underachieving overachiever” John Leguizamo’s historic, gut-busting laugh-a-thon, Latin History For Morons.