With a blackboard and chalk near at hand on Rachel Hauck’s effective set design, Leguizamo sports a tweedy jacket, professorial vest and tie. In spite of his uniform, he brings down the house time and again, whenever he breaks into his dance, or rather the multiple and extremely energetic dances of his Latin ancestors, which is to say often. (He claims, at one point, “These are all authentic Inca dances, by the way.”)
While setting out to “undo” our “whole, entire education” of Latin history–and to compensate for the textbook neglect of the impact of the Aztecs and the Incas on our culture and civilization–Leguizamo focuses on his son’s coming to terms with being the son of a Latino celebrity–namely, himself. Given that his wife is Jewish, and therefore, “very intolerant of intolerance,” Leguizamo never imagined that his “son was going to have to go through the same rite of passage that I did,” he says, at the beginning of this, his latest one-man show, which is filling the seats at The Public Theater.
He also admits to having been “embarrassed” to discover that he knew so little about his 3,000-year-old history and the multiple Spanish “empires” he proceeds to explicate, bringing us in due course to Christopher Columbus, who he proclaims is “the Donald Trump of the New World.”
In keeping with the classroom conceit of the show, Leguizamo fixates on one particular audience-member and gives him demerits whenever he fails to answer questions correctly, as if he were an ill-prepared or backward student. One of those questions is how syphilis was introduced to the Americas. (The correct answer–by fornicating with sheep–was shouted out by another member of the audience.) He even manages, in his pedantic fashion, to introduce the great physicist Stephen Hawking into the lesson, as well as Spalding Gray, Leguizamo’s monologue-predecessor, who was clearly something of a paragon, for him. Alec Baldwin’s name comes up as well, as do Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson and Andrew Weiner.
But from beginning to end, the entire “lesson” centers on his son’s eighth-grade history project to find a Latin hero, prompting Leguizamo to research the matter and make many surprising discoveries. As he recently told the Daily News for an advance story on the show, “When I was a kid if there had been anything in my classes that said that 10,000 Latin people fought in the American Revolution… or even that Latin people participated in the Civil War in huge numbers, it would have had a significant impact on my self-worth.”
There is also a certain focus on Leguizamo’s teaching his son Buddy how to defend himself against the taunts of school-mates, one of whom says, “Your dad’s a celebro-tard.” And, in one of the best set pieces, Leguizamo recreates his losing it, so to speak, during a talk he was invited to give in Dallas on ethnic relations. (As Leguizamo’s daughter tells her brother, “Did you know that dad got booed by all of Texas?”)
Twenty-seven years after he made his theatrical debut, it’s gratifying to discover that Leguizamo has retained his uncanny knack for impersonating other voices: Although we may not know exactly how his wife, his son or his mother really sounds, his recreation of his therapist’s voice–whom he tells us sounds just like Garrison Keillor–is dead-on. (He also does a terrific Austrian accent, when he brings forth the great Freud himself.) It’s during one of several sessions with his therapist that we learn of Leguizamo’s admiration for the late Spalding Gray. And it’s during another that he refers to his “creative yet pathetic need to win the approval” of others–which pretty much sums up the motivation behind many great performers.
Directed by Tony Taccone with a surefire hand and continuously effective results, Latin History for Morons is at times ferocious, yet heartfelt. Though the ending, which won’t be revealed here, proves particularly moving, some may find it overly sentimental. That’s meant as slim criticism for a diversion that’s not only entertaining, but also educational.
Latin History for Morons (through April 23, 2017)
A Public Theater production, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.pubictheater.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission