After his teenaged son is called a “beaner” by one of his classmates at a WASPy private school, Leguizamo is inspired to educate the rest of the United States about the overlooked achievements of Latin culture. This is done as a wild, stand-up comedy routine where the audience is directly engaged and occasionally heckled, and with a superior theatrical presentation.
Scenic designer Rachel Hauck has configured the stage as a cartoon-like vision of a classroom that visually complements the performance. There’s a large swinging blackboard, a grimly painted brick wall, a huge bulletin board, and a clutter of books and institutional furniture.
Wearing costume designer Luke McDonough’s witty, pseudo-academic attire of a tweed jacket, blue and white patterned shirt and red tie, a gray vest and black trousers, Leguizamo enters carrying a file box. He proceeds to deliver his tutorial with his characteristic dynamism, off-color language and earthiness.
“So we were like 50 feral latchkey kids per class and it was like Lord of The Flies but with a lot less supervision,” reminisces the Colombian-born, American-raised Leguizamo about his own 1980’s,New York City school days. He hyperbolically charts the timeline of the Americas from the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas, the Spanish conquistadors, to Columbus, Montezuma, Cortez, the American Revolution, and the Civil War, all the way to the present.
Besides Christopher Columbus as a contemporary Guido, there are brief, sharp impressions of Mike Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Papp, Andrew Jackson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Cuban-born rapper Pitbull. He physically transforms himself into various characters with rapidity by donning a clever selection of comical headgear and chalk dust from the erasers.
The humorous recitations are broken up by periodic dance sequences where Leguizamo fiercely moves around and at one point does a smooth tango, all to recorded music.
There are also digressions and riffs where he simulates therapy sessions with his Project Runway’s Tim Gunn-style analyst. Observational tangents abound that cover his family life and his gay brother. Leguizamo’s wife is Jewish and so there’s plenty of marriage schtick and Yiddishisms.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus are the primary alternative historical texts that Leguizamo eloquently synthesizes during his educational portions.
Prior to this Broadway engagement, Latin History for Morons ran Off- Broadway at The Public Theater from March 27 to April 28, 2017. New material has obviously been added since then.
Topical subjects includes a zinger about Kevin Spacey’s sexual scandals. Of course, there’s a screed against President Donald Trump for his anti-immigration policies and racial and cultural divisiveness.
Director Tony Taccone’s vigorous staging has Leguizamo move all over the playing area with precision. Lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols artfully employs spotlights, steady brightness and quick fades that all give the piece scope and dimension. Bray Poor’s jolting original score and snippets of pop music are all realized by his bracing sound design.
Though arguably a more contained format would have been more effective, with Latin History for Morons John Leguizamo succeeds at his informative and diversionary goals with tremendous flair.
Latin History for Morons (through February 25, 2018)
Berkeley Repertory Theatre & The Public Theater production
Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.latinhistorybroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission