Theater review by Raven Snook
It's heartening to see that John Leguizamo hasn't mellowed with middle age—but he hasn't matured much, either. Just as he was in his previous autobiographically inspired solo outings, he's an outrageous, un-PC oversharer who'll mimic Stephen Hawking or mime masturbation to get giggles—even if they're uncomfortable ones. With Latin History for Morons, his first one-person show since 2011's Ghetto Klown, he goes beyond his colorful Queens youth for material, using an ugly instance of his eighth grade son being called an ethnic slur to spark a passionate investigation into Latino culture throughout the ages—ostensibly so his kid can present the info at school.
Lest this sound like a TED Talk with punch lines, the main takeaway from Latin History for Morons is laughs, not learning. Dressed like a hipster public school teacher and surrounded by classroom clutter, Leguizamo uses a blackboard and his ever-mutable body and voice to race through cursory dramatizations of the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs and a few more obscure figures like Loreta Janeta Velázquez, a Cuban woman who passed herself off as a male Confederate soldier during the Civil War. (There's so much to unpack there, she clearly deserves her own play!) Though amusing at first, these sequences eventually start to flag. So much information flies so fast in Leguizamo's cartoon style, it's challenging to digest. There's also a sameness to it; as his own son points out, these heroes were always on the losing side of history, hence their near absence from American curricula.
The more emotionally engaging narrative is the framing device with his kids. Leguizamo—who's long made fun of his own parents and other relatives (his deaf, gay, lewd uncle Sandy from Freak makes a hilarious appearance)—is now the father to be goofed on. As seen through his awkward adolescent son's and aloof teen daughter's eyes, he's a well-meaning, hyperactive mess.
Long-time Leguizamo certainly fans won't be disappointed (unless they can't get tickets; the run is pretty much sold out). It's often uproariously funny and gleefully irreverent, with a host of broad impressions. And yet the show—energetically helmed by fellow Queens Latino and Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone—seems to want to impart something more serious than its joke-a-minute structure can support. In a country obsessed with discussing identity politics, white privilege and Black Lives Matter, it's understandable that Leguizamo wants to examine where brown folks fit in, then and now. Seems like he's still researching that part.
Public Theater. Written and performed by John Leguizamo. Directed by Tony Taccone. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. Through Apr 23.