‘Latin History for Morons’ showcases the juggernaut that is John Leguizamo
This is a production that is flashy and fun and bright enough to illuminate history that’s all too often ignored.
Somewhere between 1000 B.C. (dawn of the Mayan empire) and the 21st century (Era of Pitbull), John Leguizamo takes a break from his one-man whirlwind survey of Latin American history as depicted in his stage show, “Latin History for Morons.”
He wants to share a revelation he had in therapy. The therapist (who sounds like fashion expert Tim Gunn and is one of many characters Leguizamo plays in the show) suggests a game of word association. Leguizamo responds to three prompts with the first thing that comes to mind. “Success,” “genius” and “solo performer” yield “Mark Zuckerberg,” “Steve Jobs” and “Spalding Gray.” Then there’s a moment when you can almost see Leguizamo’s head explode. He’s just realized his go-to heroes don’t include a single Latinx.
When: Through Nov. 3
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Run time: 110 minutes, no intermission
He asks the bazillion-dollar question: How is it he didn’t think of a single Latin American hero? Or more bluntly: “Where the [expletive] did that [expletive] come from?” The therapist is at a loss. Sort of. Leguizamo slides into his Tim Gunn voice again: “Other than history text books, books, movies, television and newspapers, I really don’t know.” It’s a scathing illustration of precisely why representation matters, be it in school curricula or on soap operas.
The moment loses something in translation, but trust and believe: It’s one of many exquisitely timed, scathingly astute observations Leguizamo weaves into his odyssey through time, space and the perils of raising a middle schooler who is being ruthlessly bullied because he’s the son of a Latin American “celebutard.”
Director Tony Taccone leaves little room for air as Leguizamo gallops through millennia of history. That’s a good thing. Leguizamo’s script is so packed with information that anything less than the precision pacing of an extreme thrill-ride would derail the entire shebang.
“Latin History” (playing through Sunday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre) is more than a masterfully accessible (“the conquistadors were like NFL players at a Kardashian pool party”) analysis of the rise and extermination of the Incas, Mayas, Aztecs, Tainos and countless Native American tribes of North America. It’s also an exploration of Leguizamo’s troubles with parenting and his struggles to find the source of his own rage.
It’s important to stop right here and say that this is not John Leguizamo’s “History of Latin America.” It’s Howard Zinn’s history, and Charles C. Mann’s history and the history contained within the more than four dozen books of “required “ and “extracurricular reading” listed on the show’s website. The books are scattered over set designer Rachel Hauck’s worn-down classroom set, and Leguizamo uses them for citations throughout. His descriptions of history are dazzlingly creative, flamboyantly punctuated by expertly deployed profanity. (Do not bring young children to this show.) But the facts within that virtuosic delivery are verifiable.
Leguizamo’s son plays a key role in the narrative, beginning when the middle schooler is called a racial slur by a kid whose name graces the school library. Leguizamo sets out in search of Latin American heroes to bolster his son’s self-esteem. He also tells the kid to sucker-punch the bully. The quest for heroes turns up riches. The sucker punch? Well, not for nothing does Leguizamo learn that violence is the lowest form of communication.
Against this personal backdrop, Leguizamo traces conquistadors and colonists through the Caribbean and the Americas, steering between humor and horror with the prowess of an elite-level race car driver. It’s a rush.
Leguizamo plays Montezuma, Sigmund Freud, Andrew Jackson and Mike Tyson before the night is over. He enacts one war in tight, flaming-red underpants and another with a one-man dance battle. The sound cues that went glaringly awry opening night could have been a disaster. Instead, they highlighted just how quick-witted and charismatic Leguizamo is on stage.
When he gets to the heart of his rage issues, it’s with a clarity that strikes like a viper. He lays out in devastating terms how millennia of erasure — be it the obliteration of the Tainos or the lack of a single Latin American reference in an eighth grade history book or a president that calls all Latin Americans rapists and criminals — can twist pride into self-loathing, self-loathing into rage.
After he’s connected the past with the present and provided context that shows history replaying itself time and again, Leguizamo closes with celebratory defiance that stops erasure with the force of a freight train smashing a soda can. The result is a production that is flashy and fun and bright enough to illuminate history that’s all too often ignored.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.