Actor/writer/one-man-force-of-nature John Leguizamo entered the National Theatre opening night to thunderous applause, which he immediately attempted to quell. “We can’t waste any time,” he interjected, “We have to unteach everything you’ve learned so far, and that’s a lot of shit to undo.” He was not wrong, in the next two hours proceeding to offer a strong opposition to the whitewashed revisionist history we’ve all been taught in high school. Expertly guided by Tony Taccone’s taut direction, Latin History for Morons, which earned a Tony nomination for Best Play and a special Tony Award for Leguizamo, is a rapid-fire rebuttal to the narrative we’ve been fed by our education systems that have at best downplayed the contributions of the Latin-X and their ancestors, and at worst, which is usually, erased them.
The impetus for Leguizamo’s educational opus was intimate and personal. His eighth-grade son was being bullied by a racist classmate who called him “beaner” while touting his direct lineage from generals and heroes of the Confederate Army (exactly what his enrollment in a high-priced private school was intended to prevent). Leguizamo seizes the opportunity to couple this experience with a class history project detailing his son’s personal hero to find an appropriate Latin-X figure in history to inspire pride in his heritage. Easier said than done.
What evolves is a frenzied whirlwind tour de force though Euro-centric revisionist history, equal parts hilarious, educational, and heartbreaking. We learn oppression of the Latin nation started centuries before the border wall when the Europeans conquered and ravaged the American continents. He places particular emphasis on the indigenous Native American nations in the cultural mix of today’s Latin-American descendants, primarily the Taínos in the Caribbean, the Aztecs in Mexico, the Incas in South America, and the Cherokees and Navajos in the American Southwest. He plays up contributions made by prominent Latin-X figures through time, but spends more time accentuating the horrors subjected to them by the Conquistadors (primarily eradication of their populations through “the world’s first germ warfare” in the form of smallpox), the European dregs banished to the new world who pressed west (criminals who became the “heroes” in “cowboys and Indians”), and American leaders from Andrew Jackson, famous for his genocidal policies, particularly his Indian Removal Act and the resulting “Trail of Tears”, through the current MAGA administration, which played exceedingly well into DC’s liberal-leaning audience.
In his previous hit one-man shows (Spic-o-rama, Sexaholics, Mambo Mouth, Ghetto Klown), Leguizamo embraces a flip, hip, urban cultural persona and embodies an array of highly colorful local inhabitants in his world. While there are instances of that in Latin History, from a brief trip back to his high school experience in New York’s “useless and underfunded” public school system, to a cultural relapse when confronting the bully’s father, the giant tree from which the acorn fell (when negotiations don’t go as planned, he informs the racist brute they aren’t even accurate with their slurs: “beaners” are Mexicans and his people are Puerto Ricans; the proper slur is “spic”), to an overly-affected Moctezuma more than ready to bend over for the dashing Spaniard Cortés (“You leave me no choice, cuz you’re so butch…”) to, well any excuse to interject the sexy art of Latin dance. But here he is a more subdued and somewhat the nerdy Everyman dad, just wanting to keep his kid from hurting. Here his characterizations draw heavily on his immediate family: his sensible Jewish wife, his angsty adolescent son, and his eye-rolling up-speaking older and wiser daughter. He even provides modern day dad-isms equivalent to the “walking uphill in a snowstorm” rhetoric of yore. He tells his kids instead of pirating and Spotify, if he wanted to steal music he had to run down to the record store and cop the vinyl LP., or worse, wait for it to come on the radio and tape it (with the DJ talking over the beginning). Or before Google Nation, if he wanted to find song lyrics, he had to “rewind, rewind, rewind”, which is why for twenty years “Rock the Casbah” was “Rock The Cat’s Car” (a sentiment this critic can attest to: when in grade school, Elton John’s title character in “Benny & the Jets” had “electric boobs” and “a motored suit”, whatever the hell that would have been).
He gets a great visual assist from costume designer Luke McDonough with Ivy-League wannabe jacket and vest, hair a little overly grown out and messy, the full nebbish academic dad. Set designer Rachel Hauck provides a delightful testament to the vast array of useless knowledge in high school academia from piles of dusty textbooks to the central mobile blackboard of which Mr. Legizamo the instructor makes serious multi-chalk-colored use in his lesson plan.
Yes there are jokes, many hysterical, but through the laughs, Leguizamo and director Taccone inject a deep look at the history that has been eradicated from our white-approved school textbooks more completely than the corresponding legions were by the white men who absconded with their lands, their goods, their history, and their worth. A reference note attached to Leguizamo’s credit as author and star on the title page of the program states “The derivation of “Leguizamo” comes from Mansio Serra De Leguizamon, one of the last conquistadors to die in Peru. Before his death, De Leguizamon apologized for the conquest.” De Leguizamon the Elder would be very proud, albeit 20+ generations later, to have seen his progeny finally set the record straight for his people. Leguizamo the Younger is symbolically the treasure the audience takes away from this much-needed exploration.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons plays through November 23, 2019 at The National Theatre— 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at 800-514-3849 or purchase them online.