Latin History for Morons
John Leguizamo returns to Broadway to teach us a lesson.
Class is in session at Studio 54. Our professor is the ever-animated John Leguizamo, who jubilantly lectures, provokes, and amuses in his new comedy solo show, Latin History for Morons. He plows through the history of the Western Hemisphere like a hurricane, demolishing the prevailing Eurocentric narrative in his path. We spend 100 minutes laughing at his antics, keenly aware that the history we learned in high school was selective, but still unsure of the rest of the story.
The impetus for Leguizamo's deep dive into Latin history is a school project about heroes assigned to his pre-teen son. Unable to immediately think of a Latin American hero, he goes in search of one. He eventually finds Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor who colluded with Spanish invaders in a scheme to prop up his domestic popularity. He also finds Atahualpa, the final Sapa Inca, who attempted to flee Francisco Pizarro on a cumbersome litter. Then there's Loretta Velázquez, the Cuban-American woman who disguised herself as a man during the Civil War in order to fight for (oh dear) the Confederacy. None of them are suitable subjects. It becomes increasingly urgent for Leguizamo to find the right Latin hero for his son, especially after a school bully calls him a "beaner."
In pushing back forcefully against such Trumpian bullying, Leguizamo presents a show that is refreshingly un-PC (notice it is not called Latinx History for Morons). No tribe escapes Leguizamo's gleeful mockery: The voice he does for his Jewish wife sounds like a muted Fran Drescher, while his portrayal of a flouncy Moctezuma will delight those of us who still carry warm memories of his turn as Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. "I'm allowed to do that: I have a gay brother," he tells the audience after performing an energetic vogue. Leguizamo stealthily jabs at our hyper-sensitive culture by recounting a confrontation in which he struggled to find an insult word that wouldn't offend anyone but his opponent. As Leguizamo agonized over language, the jerk punched him in the face — which certainly seems like a metaphor for something larger happening in our society.
All of these bits were in the show last spring, when it played the Public Theater. Leguizamo has made only a few adjustments for the move uptown: Instead of describing his therapist as sounding like NPR's Garrison Keillor, for the TV-friendly Broadway audience, he now says he sounds like Tim Gunn of Project Runway (even though his vocal impersonation is still dead-on A Prairie Home Companion). Up-to-the-minute references to Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are thrown in for good measure. Other than that, it's mostly the same show, now happily playing to a much bigger venue.
In the intimate thrust of the Public's Anspacher Theater, Leguizamo was almost too loud, like a firecracker in a closet. As thrilling as it was to behold him up-close, he seems more at home on Broadway: He can rumba across the stage, make ridiculous faces, and concoct the most Martian-sounding French accent and it never feels like too much. When it comes to working with Leguizamo, Tony Taccone's one direction seems to have been more.
The same could be said about Rachel Hauck's book-strewn, clipping-festooned set, which looks more like a conspiracy theorist's lair than a legitimate classroom. Alexander V. Nichol's lighting and Bray Poor's sound design enhances an already cartoonish performance: When Leguizamo wants to dance, Samba whistles and flashing lights instantly appear. At the same time, his tweed suit ("clothing consultation" by Luke McDonough) holds out the promise that in addition to making us laugh our faces off, this will be a real educational experience.
Sadly, we don't actually learn much about pre-Columbian America, which constitutes the vastest expanse of Latin history. The heartiest scenes are about the Aztec and Incan conquests, reinforcing how inextricable this subject is from the story of European exploitation. One hopes that those in the audience who have a genuine interest in this topic (who are not morons) will be inspired to delve into their own research. There is still a lot of digging to do.