It’s fascinating how much theater literature includes a father-son theme. Perhaps unexpectedly, that’s at the heart of John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, which isn’t only wall-to-wall hilarious but ultimately also deeply moving—and highly recommended.
As the solo show at the Public’s Anspacher begins, Leguizamo, dressed like a funky teacher, enters a set that designer Rachel Hauck has arranged to look like a schoolroom replete with two-sided blackboard and books in various crates.
The comedian—who gives the impression of having been wound up to the max before arriving—lets his (already adoring) audience know that some time ago he realized his suspiciously quiet son was being bullied at school. An Irish kid had been inaccurately labeling him a “beaner” (Mexican, for those who don’t recognize the term) and claiming that there are no heroes in the background.
(Note that in talking about bullying, Leguizamo is responding to another current issue. Even Melania Trump has talked about taking up the fight. Might she be preparing a one-woman show about Barron and her?)
Loving father that he is, Leguizamo decided right then to search history for evidence that Latins have as rich a trove of evidence as anything European. Off he goes with his own brand of scathing and kinetic humor to locate any amount of substantiating evidence. On his paternal crusade, he practically attacks the blackboard, drawing diagrams of North, Central and South America. He brings the Mayans and the Aztecs into his jazzed discussion.
He refers steamily to Montezuma, Atahualpa, Cortez and Pizarro and the years 1529 and 1531. To build his ultimately illuminating argument he races around grabbing books placed around the set and reads from them, shows illustrations from them. He’s tireless as he counts and recounts the ways he’s attempted to fire enthusiasm in his worried offspring.
One enormous plus he brings in is dance. But this is Leguizamo. He doesn’t just list dancing. He takes the opportunity to break into a propulsive demonstration of the samba, the mambo, the cha-cha, et cetera. That’s not the only time, either, that he breaks out his slick moves, a tactic he knows his audience loves, and sound designer Bray Poor keeps the musical inserts blasting.
Throughout, the gleeful 90-minute lecture, he repeats conversations with his wife, his daughter and his son. His daughter, forever wearing headphones is a teenager who thinks she knows everything, and she’s often right about that. At times, she’s certainly savvier than her dad.
Repeatedly attempting to get through to his son, Leguizamo mimes talking to him at—often only through—his bedroom door. (Lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols works that out and keeps the imaginative lighting going from start to finish.)
And here’s where he strides confidently into sentimental territory. He eventually gets through to the youngster but not necessarily in the way he expected. He ends by attending the school assembly where the students present their projects. From his son, he hears what he’s helped shaped—and it isn’t entirely dry-eye material.
Because this is Leguizamo, there are substantial laughs along the way. He calls Columbus “the Donald Trump of the New World.” And there are political jabs as well. Very early on, he brings up Iowa Republican Steve King’s ignorant comment about American culture being strictly of white heritage.
To some extent, Latin History for Morons, beautifully directed by Tony Taccone, is a pointed response to King, for whom it should be required viewing. The rest of us can just line up to cheer it.