By Allison Adato
March 27, 2017 at 10:00 PM EDT
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Public Theater

Latin History for Morons

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  • Stage

In the first moments of his latest one-man show, Latin History for Morons, John Leguizamo plots his plan for the evening by drawing a line on a chalkboard: We’re going to cover the vast experience of several too-often ignored cultures, beginning with the Mayans and ending with Pitbull. Can he do it? He’s gonna try. In 95 often hilarious minutes he tromps through the pre-Columbian civilizations, introduces Latin heroes of most every American war, and reminds us that his forebears rightfully deserve credit for (among other things) bringing Europeans tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, forceps, and the mambo. But given the constraints of time and comedy, the best he can do is to take the rough edges off us morons.

And yet tucked into this CliffsNotes version of the conquistadors is a far more moving saga, that of Leguizamo’s own family. He began unspooling his personal history in 1993’s Spic-O-Rama, which was peopled by veiled versions of his relatives (he played them all), and continued through Freak (his 1998 Broadway debut), Sexaholix (2001), and his solo autobiographical epic Ghetto Klown (2011). At the end of Klown, Leguizamo is a married father to two young children. It’s his son, in eighth grade when Latin History opens, who sets him on this new chapter. The kid’s being bullied in school, being called names (and not even the right slurs — the family hails from Colombia, not Mexico). Moreover, he has to write a report about a hero. “Why not a Latin hero,” suggests dad, helpfully. But given how U.S. curriculums have ignored the contributions of Latin civilizations, the boy can’t name even one. Everything he knows about the Maya he learned from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

So Leguizamo sets about educating himself so he can give his son some history in which the heroes look like him. With this mandate, he’s off to the races, speeding through time. Many of the historical A-listers he name–drops will be familiar even to those with only Mr. Peabody and Sherman credentials, though there was one eye-opening character which made me wonder if every culture has a Mulan or a Yentl (Papi, can you hear me?).

Leguizamo, teamed this time with director Tony Taccone, who brought Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking to Broadway, is a veteran of solo storytelling and knows how to pace a monologue, offering up a dance break before you realized you needed one. He livens the lecture with characters, accents, some justifiable Yiddish (his wife is Jewish), physical gags, and a few dated stereotypes (even in a show about ancient cultures, some still felt a little old).

In one of the show’s more earnest moments, he talks about the high dropout rate among Latino students and hopes he can do for more of them what he was trying to do for his son: Give them heroes in their own image. And for the rest of us morons? Here’s what was most relatable: The image of a father desperate to get it right as a parent. Although he is a master of characters, Leguizamo digs deepest playing himself as he aims to be both a role model to his kids and someone they can love as an imperfect human. And who among us raising tweens and teens would not be forgiven for standing up and cheering when he delivers a “you don’t know how lucky you have it” talk to his Google-era children that includes this gem: “When we wanted to know the lyrics to a song we had to rewind and rewind and rewind!” It has nothing to do with Latin history, but oh did it ring true. Here’s hoping there’s more of Leguizamo’s own family saga to come. B+

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Latin History for Morons

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