The ushers are wearing “Ghetto Scholar” sweatshirts in Studio 54, where for his sixth solo show John Leguizamo stands in front of a blackboard and lectures on the history, politics, culture and demographics of the 70 million Latinos in the United States. But Leguizamo is too much of an anarchic comic spirit, master mimic and candid memoirist to be merely erudite. Latin History for Morons exists on three planes – fascinating nuggets of actual history mixed with political commentary; eclectic comic shtick; and a funny, tender story of the performer’s efforts to connect with his family.
The show is framed as Leguizamo’s search for Latin heroes, a research project he undertakes after his son is bullied by a racist classmate, who calls him a loser and boasts of his own ancestry: “I come from a long line of captains and generals…”
Prodded by his wife (“my wife’s Jewish, so she’s very intolerant of intolerance”), Leguizamo confronts the eighth-grader’s father, who makes something of the same boast: “I come from a long, long line of philanthropeneurs,“ Leguizamo says as the hearty dad in a deliciously spot-on impression of an Upper East Side snob.
“Oh, yeah,” Leguizamo responds as himself, “well, I come from a long line of a…long line of people too.”
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Leguizamo is aghast to discover he comes from a long line of …losers – which is to say, people on the losing side of history, from the genocide of the Tainos in the Caribbean and the Aztecs in Mexico to the U.S. Repatriation Act of 1930, “when they blamed Mexican Americans for taking jobs during the Depression (sound familiar?)”, and deported half a million of them.
But then he stumbled upon Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, and learned that his ancestors gave the world everything from avocado to brain surgery to hockey, while Europeans gave the world everything from typhus to tuberculosis to pigeons.
Leguizamo is a familiar face on Broadway, where he’s performed three of his previous solo shows, Freak, Sexaholic and Ghetto Klown. Latin History for Morons in many ways follows his established template. He mocks his mother and knocks his father; humorously re-creates his sessions with a therapist; makes some sharp jokes and some foul-mouthed ones; and offers pitch perfect impressions of everybody from his dismissive daughter and deaf uncle to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez and Aztec Emperor Montezuma.
He intersperses this kinetic collage with sexy, high-octane dance breaks that have been his signature since his breakthrough stage show, Mambo Mouth, back in 1991. Now, though, he no longer strips down to his underwear for these brief interludes, and he finishes them out of breath: “I’m getting too old for this sh…”
At 53, Leguizamo is maturing. When I saw Latin History for Morons Off-Broadway in the Spring, I saw a new and promising direction for the talented performer in his willingness to go beyond autobiography. I also felt that, as if afraid to lose his audience, he occasionally threatened to undermine his fine work with some dopey jokes and silly antics, such as donning a red wig, Confederate hat, and mincing an impersonation of one Loreta Velazquez, a Cuban-born woman who disguised herself as a man in order to join the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
For the Broadway transfer, Loreta’s still around, but she’s toned down and clarified, as are several of the jokes. Leguizamo has also sharpened his cultural and political critiques – so much so that, combined with his activist Twitter feed and a recent politically-charged speech of his that I attended, I briefly wondered whether he has thoughts of running for office. Whether or not voters wind up seeing him as a genuine Latino hero, my hope is that such a brilliant theater artist will still have time for the stage.
Latin History for Morons is on stage at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019 ) through February 25, 2018. Tickets and details
Latin History for Morons . Written by and starring John Leguizamo . Directed by Tony Taccone, scenic design by Rachel Hauck, lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols, sound design and original music by Bray Poor. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.