In his sixth one-man show, Tony winner John Leguizamo is back on stage with Latin History for Morons, a timely and engaging piece that is part comedy special, part solo revue, and part poignant academic lesson. Opening this week at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre after a successful Broadway run, the show was inspired by Leguizamo’s young son. Feeling helpless due to his inability to prevent the wrath of middle school bullies, Leguizamo was determined to help with a school project that required his son to research a historical hero. But when he checked out the history textbook, he was dismayed by the near-total absence of Latinx heroes. Fueled by rage, frustration, and what he aptly refers to as “ancestral PTSD,” Leguizamo embarked on a mission to dig through other historical sources and find his son a Latin hero for his project. When he takes the stage, he quickly encourages the audience to stop applauding. “We got a lot of work to do here tonight, and I got very little time to do it ’cause I gotta undo your whole education,” he says, ready to get down to business.
Directed by Tony Taccone, the conceit for the show is fairly straightforward. Leguizamo is alone onstage for the entire hour and 50 minutes, addressing the audience directly. His “lecture” is called, of course, Latin History for Morons, and he tells the crowd that yes, we are the morons in question. And, to an extent, it’s true—I certainly learned some sobering and important facts I did not know about Latin history, and judging by the vocal reactions of the audience, I suspect nearly everyone walked away with a new bit of knowledge. Beginning with the Mayan Empire, the show flies through 3,000 years of history, highlighting both the horrific genocides committed against Latinx people as well as the remarkable achievements of many Latinx heroes that our modern day history books have forgotten.
Leguizamo frequently references how painfully relevant these stories are to the current Trump era. He mentions how the crimes against his people are far from over, considering they are still being put in literal cages—but that, he acquiesces, would require a whole separate show to address fully. When teasing the audience for their ignorance, he acknowledges educational blindspots are not their fault—we can all blame Betsy DeVos. Even though he is discussing events that occurred millenniums ago, the modern-day parallels are striking. Throughout the show, he regularly references books and sources that helped him with his research, and for those thirsty to know more, the playbill includes a list of recommended reading.
In theory, it sounds very difficult to talk non-stop for nearly two hours and manage to keep things engaging, but it seems effortless for Leguizamo. His performance is so animated and physical that it never feels like you are simply watching a lecture. He dons wigs and mustaches, he dances, he portrays dozens of characters ranging from his Jewish wife to Moctezuma. The energy of the performance never wavers, and there are a ton of quotable one-liners. He compares the conquistadors to “NBA players at a Kardashian pool party,” and when commenting on his young daughter’s music habits, laments that when he was a kid and wanted to steal music, “you had to walk to the goddamn record store and shoplift it yourself!” There were two moments, however, where jokes struck me as crossing the line into offensive territory—an imitation of a stereotypical Indian doctor, and playing the mannerisms of the late Stephen Hawking for laughs.
Those blips of discomfort aside, most of what Leguizamo has to say is right on the money. He speaks of the horrors Columbus inflicted on the Latino people, exterminating many of them. “That, my lovely morons, is called the Caribbean Holocaust,” he says, before pointing out the injustice of then devoting an entire holiday to celebrating the man. He also draws attention to the fact that the Founding Fathers plagiarized parts of the Constitution from that of the Iroquois nation, which was revolutionary in the way it guaranteed freedoms to individual states. But in addition to being informative and fun to watch, what really pushes Latin History for Morons from good to great is how surprisingly touching it is, particularly in its final moments when the throughline of his son’s heroes project is paid off beautifully.
Latin History for Morons runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through October 20th. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes, no intermission. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app for the chance to enter to win the chance to purchase lottery tickets for only $25.