In August, a few months after John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons premiered Off-Broadway, a white nationalist rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. The protest prompted a debate over how we as a country should remember our founding: the lingering stain of the Confederacy in the South, the legacy of controversial icons like Christopher Columbus, the ways in which we choose to address the sins of the past. It reignited a conversation about who our “history” — as it’s taught, considered, and selected — really belongs to.
There couldn’t be a better time, in other words, for Latin History for Morons to get a Broadway upgrade. Leguizamo’s one-man show features the performer as a version of himself, revising the way American history is typically taught to elevate the heroes of his own ethnic background, and to give his son the chance to feel pride in where and what he comes from. Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia, has long been a wild stage presence, an actor of enough range to keep an entire theater enraptured through his own musings, impressions, and literal pratfalls. (Previous one-man shows have netted him Obie and Drama Desk awards.) Yet while Latin History doesn’t exactly depart from that script — Leguizamo is hardly subdued here — this production is a sobering expression of political urgency that reflects its star’s maturation as a Latino public figure.
The show, directed by Tony Taccone, is framed around Leguizamo’s son (referred to as Buddy) trying to prepare a “Heroes Project” in advance of his high school graduation. Leguizamo takes it upon himself to inspire his son with stories of Latino warriors who fought valiantly through centuries of American life. He draws on everything from Howard Zinn’s People’s History to the biography of pioneering cross-dresser Loreta Velazquez in order to educate himself — and, in turn, the audience — on what standard American history textbooks have omitted or whitewashed. “I’m looking for Latin heroes and Latin contributions, and I’m looking from cover to cover and there’s nothing about us, nada culo, dick,” he recalls to us, his son’s textbook in hand, before literally ripping pages out. “Not one chapter, not a mention, not a single goddamned name — like we were absent all these centuries.”
Leguizamo strives to correct this. He acts out the fall of the Aztecs, the rise of the Incan Empire, and the brutality of Columbus with a disarming mix of performative flamboyance, screwball comedy, and educational rigor. This is intermixed with his own learning experiences, working through the anger of coming to terms with his cultural erasure. Latin History covered this terrain in its original Off-Broadway incarnation, to be sure. But on Broadway, and within the current political context, there’s an added emotional weight. The audience reactions are louder, the performance bigger, the ideas more resonant.
Latin History is a fluid piece of theater, too, which gives it an adaptive quality. The performance I attended this past weekend featured timely mentions of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and made devastating reference to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico and the Trump administration’s insufficient response. Even in a venue as large as Broadway’s Studio 54, Leguizamo is reactive with his audience, allowing for improvisation within the script (which he himself authored). He demands involvement from the crowd — clapping to his dancing of the mambo, blurting out answers to pop quizzes while he scribbles on a chalkboard — and brings enough empathy and passion to earn it. In his interest in marginalization, Leguizamo creates an endearing collage of impressions: his haughty therapist, his shy son, his Jewish wife, his gay brother, his woke daughter. Some verge on politically incorrect, but they come from a place of love and respect — of identification. And through their collective roars of laughter, it’s clear the audience identifies too.
Latin History is boisterous and joyful but also laced with sorrow, with Leguizamo beautifully communicating feelings of invisibility, inherited trauma, and even grief. (In one painfully good monologue about the fall of the Incas, he admits, “[It] broke my heart, because here was our history — the foundation of a ‘brown race’ … with our own James Joyces, our own Dostoevskys and Prousts … now destroyed.”) A running theme of the play is Leguizamo trying to lift his son up after he’s repeatedly bullied for being Latino; he confronts the bully’s bigoted father, and in asides, conveys his rage at the thought of his son being targeted for his heritage. The way Leguizamo connects this personal hardship — this lived experience of discrimination — to legislation and policy, like the “Show Me Your Papers” law of Arizona, is unnervingly potent. The way he fights to reclaim his identity in such a fraught era feels cathartic, a gasp for recognition and visibility that ought to echo far beyond the noisy streets of Broadway and Times Square. With Latin History for Morons, Leguizamo isn’t merely teaching us what we’ve never been taught. He’s giving us a space to cheer and cry, to laugh and listen. A-