Potatoes. Tomatoes. Mambo and tobacco. A zillion or so military accomplishments dating back to Incan society—these are a few of the contributions Latinos have made to society that are “invisible” in the standard American history curriculum, John Leguizamo argues in the New York premiere of his latest satirical one-man show, now at The Public Theater.
The snarkily titled “Latin History for Morons” is Leguizamo’s sometimes repetitive, mostly riotous effort to explain the ways he was “brainwashed” by the New York City school system. At the same time, it’s a fatherly effort to prevent the same fate from happening to his own kids. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he begins. “I’ve gotta undo your entire education.”
For most of the night, Leguizamo stands at a chalkboard, sketching out the contributions of Latinos to, well … history. He has the wardrobe of a polished academic and the untamed hair of a madman—in one of the show’s better tangents, Leguizamo deftly smacks a pair of chalky erasers to each side of his wild mane, turning momentarily into Andrew Jackson (“Even though I may look more like Frederick Douglass”).
Among the tidbits theatergoers will absorb during the 90 minute-plus monologue: Some 20,000 Latin men and women fought in the Civil War. But, Leguizamo interjects: “I didn’t have any captains or generals growing up … I always felt like my history was being kept from me.”
Leguizamo’s one-liners usually hit their mark: “Conquistadors were like an NBA player at a Kim Kardashian pool party,” he laments. The demonization of Native Americans by pilgrims after that first Thanksgiving might have been prevented, if “one smart Indian woman had just said: ‘Don’t feed them!’”
One “Morons” segment explains the myriad dance styles created by Latinos (more or less, all the good ones), while the next could express self-flagellating attempts to control his temper, accompanied by chest-thumping and an aggressive declaration, repeated three times: “Do you know me? Do you know me? Do you know me?”
As a loose format for the narrative, refined last year at the La Jolla Playhouse, Leguizamo attributes his “intellectual Jihad” to frustrations trying to help his son complete a school project on Latin heroes. I’m not sure the device is necessary for his points to be made, but it does serve up an opportunity for the Queens native to deliver a treasure trove of impersonations.
They include his children; his Jewish wife, who is “intolerant of intolerance”; and an analyst, who sounds like Garrison Keillor and urges Leguizamo to deal with his “repressed ghetto rage.” As is Leguizamo’s way, the language is earthy and occasionally drifts into the unprintable—but it’s amusing and genuine.
“Latin History for Morons” is helmed by Tony Taccone, who brought Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Broadway in 2009. Leguizamo expertly establishes a rapport with his audience, and by night’s end we have no compunction about interacting with him, at the very least making the event feel like one of your better experiences in a college lecture hall.
“Latin History for Morons,” through April 23 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets start at $80. Call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn