In spite of significant limitations, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the ambitious aims and wide-ranging scope of “Latin History For Morons”, a solo show written and performed by John Leguizamo at Broadway’s Studio 54. Inspired in part by contemporary historian Howard Zinn’s landmark 1980 book “A People’s History of the United States” – Leguizamo makes several direct references to it in the show – “Latin History” narrows the lens to chronicle the Latin experience in America.
As Zinn points out, more clearly than the play’s script, “history is the propaganda of the victors.” He makes the case that excluding or misrepresenting the contributions of a specific ethnic group can have a negative impact on one’s identity. Leguizamo plays on that theme, showing stereotypes of Latino people and attempting to offer counterexamples as he retells the origin narrative of Latinos in the Americas.
To present this account, Leguizamo appears as a zany teacher in an improvised classroom, complete with blackboard. The set by Rachel Hauck is strewn with chaotic evidence of ongoing research.
This launching point quickly becomes co-mingled with a school project on personal heroes that was assigned to Leguizamo’s middle school-aged son. Leguizamo suggests finding a Latin hero, as he makes it clear to the audience that he too was ignorant of his own history as an American of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent.
Let me pause here to pay tribute to Leguizamo the actor/comedian/performance artist. His command of an audience and his transformative capacities are astonishing. This skill is amply demonstrated by his ability to quickly conjure completely physically and vocally realized characters that are disparate and distinct. This holds especially true when he portrays family members, but less so when he introduces us to historical icons.
It was not surprising to read that much of the show was first explored in a stand-up context, because as things progress there is certain desperation to entertain. Brilliantly performed choreographic interludes are injected in the show, presumably to ensure that as we gamely chuckle through serial genocides we do not become unduly disheartened.
But the many digressions and the scattershot quality of the facts we are served eventually feels reductive. Just as eating at Taco Bell is not going to allow one to appreciate the nuanced complexities of Mexican cuisine, “Latin History for Morons” does not allow the audience to engage with the important ideas it introduces.
There is a real challenge here to master a tonal consistency that works for the material and topic. Unfortunately, too often the matching of form and content is uneasy. A bit spoofing Stephen Hawking’s mechanized voice is one example of a misfire that seemed both irrelevant to the main mission and discomfiting.
Since I suspect many audience members understand the importance of including Latino history in America’s narrative, I wish we had learned about lesser-known historical events or at least seen Leguizamo make new connections between events in the curriculum of “A Latin History for Morons.” In fact, the historical examples Leguizamo chooses to highlight do little to advance his stated mission of elevating Latino people. Quite the reverse in some cases! Surely the show does not intend to say that there are no Latin heroes? But the search goes on for so long and so disappointingly for the beleaguered young son that I became anxious.
The inherent wild looseness of Leguizamo’s acting style – Leguizamo has been aptly described as a tornado on stage – does temporarily distract from flaws in the script, but does not entirely help him avoid them. Satire needs to be spot on in order to avoid creating exactly the stereotypes the show’s goal is to eliminate.
Director Tony Taccone might have assisted here by trimming the piece to sharpen the focus. Less stage time devoted to fairly widely understood tropes – for instance the European conquest of the Inca and Aztecs – may have allowed for more original juxtapositions on other historical events. At times my internal dialogue intoned “I got it already. Let’s move on!” Yet when the platform was seized to interpolate zeitgeist concerns such as the immigration ban, or the threatening of DACA, the moments felt stitched on, as opposed to meaningfully integrated.
It would help to be a Spanish speaker in order to enjoy some of the cultural references and humor that were landing for some audience members, but there was certainly enough on offer to keep a general audience feeling like they had their share of jokes.
While I occasionally joined in the surrounding glee, it was difficult to shake off the notion that I had been laughing at things which were not wholly defensible topics for humor, at least in the context in which we were experiencing them. As an example, an extended subplot about Leguizamo’s son as the subject of relentless bullying because of his heritage left me more troubled than amused.
In order to successfully reframe a people’s history, one needs to reclaim it and at least provide a modicum of inspiration. Instead, this show’s somewhat forced ending aims for an uplift that is ultimately a cop-out. The net effect was that I left the theater more dispirited and less optimistic than when I arrived.
“Latin History for Morons” opened at Studio 54 on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.
Creative: Written by John Leguizamo; Original Music: Bray Poor; Directed by Tony Taccone; Assistant Director: Victoria Collado; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Luke McDonough; Lighting Design by Alexander V. Nichols; Sound Design by Bray Poor.
Producers: Produced by Nelle Nugent, Kenneth Teaton, Denoff Salmira Amigos – Jeremy Handelman/Ben DeJesus, Audible, Peter Fine, Jon B. Platt, Jamie deRoy, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and The Public Theater; Produced in association with Melissa and Dan Berger, Stefany Bergson, Willette M. Klausner, Jose Mendez/Katie Graziano, Morwin Schmookler and Avex International Inc.
Cast: John Leguizamo