Latin History For Morons Schools the Theatre World

John Leguizamo writes on the blackboard in Latin History For Morons.                                        

Matthew Murphy
Emerson.JPG
October 1, 2019

Despite the strident title, frequent insults, and profuse profanity, Latin History For Morons never actually treats its audience like unteachable idiots; its solo star John Leguizamo instructs them and lets them grapple with complicated questions as he does. A one-man show, Latin History positions itself as an accessible crash course taught with crass panache, following the story of Leguizamo’s attempts to educate himself in order to help his son find pride in his culture and complete a school project. 

Acting as teacher and student simultaneously, Leguizamo pokes holes in his American-exceptionalist public school education and pulls books out of the set like a magician’s rabbits. The intimate instruction gets under your skin and brings the past (as well as the ugly present) uncomfortably close. Leguizamo almost makes the audience forget he isn't the crass but passionate uncle he embodies at one point, proud of his heritage and trying to make you proud of it too. 

The extended examination of how race, history, and identity meet and rub shoulders is anchored with a surprisingly small, semi-autobiographical family story: Leguizamo’s son, who has been assigned to do a history project on “heroes,” is discouraged upon finding a dearth of ones that look like him.  He is also being bullied by racists at school. The scenes where Leguizamo is clumsily trying to connect with his sensitive son, as demarcated by a lighting effect emulating a cracked-open bedroom door, are emotional knockouts. At one point, Leguizamo talks to a closed door, imploring, “Buddy, honey, listen,” and you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. When I got home, I hugged my mom and apologized for being so disconnected from her culture. That was how heartwarming it was.

This is not to say that Latin History is some kind of teary, two-hour slog through treacle. Leguizamo brings a kind of swaggering bravado to dusty tales of war and colonialism, just the same as he enlivens tales of his son’s school struggles. He pauses to samba and groove at various moments as the lights flash pink, drawing hoots and cheers, and incorporates his personal experiences for comedy, strip-mining memories of high-school bullies, therapy sessions, and familial fights. 

It’s a laugh-a-minute rollercoaster that shows Leguizamo’s performing experience and charisma. The irreverent humor is also where the show has its infrequent falters; it sometimes tips into “punching down.” One particular bit in which Leguizamo plays a traitorous Moctezuma as a camp gay caricature just made me wince, as did an imitation of the “Indian doctor” stereotype, complete with accent. The show would have been stronger and clearer in its messages without these uneasy road bumps, though thankfully they are relatively few.

The show never drops the concept of being an unconventional remedial history class. Leguizamo bounces his tremendous, energetic physicality off the stage's centerpiece, a huge blackboard that he spins, scribbles on, and hides behind throughout the course of the show. This is employed in a great many broad crowd-favorite sight gags: he transcribes all of the history he learned in school as just the word "GREEX," he draws a full-length timeline of Latin history with Mayans at 1000 BC and present-day at the end—with nothing in between, he represents an Aztec city as a… phallic shape, and the list continues. Despite the clownery, I left the theater feeling surprisingly educated, with a reading list longer than my arm and an acute awareness of how history can get twisted and reinvented to suit the present. 

Latin History tells a powerful story about family, identity, and history while making you laugh at Leguizamo as the cool substitute teacher. Its staging choices paint a cohesive and interesting backdrop. Though its manic energy spans literal millennia, its father-son narrative brings it back down to earth. 


Latin History For Morons will be at the Ahmanson Theatre until October 20, 2019. You can also watch an earlier version on Netflix.