Review: John Leguizamo's Personal History

September 14, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Latin History For Morons," The Ahmanson, Sept. 5 – Oct. 20, 2019

In Brief: Here’s a challenge. Try condensing the 3,000-year sweep of Latin-American history into a brisk 90 minutes, interweave the intimate story of a fractious father-son relationship, then make it all hilarious, compelling, intellectually stimulating, and emotional. This is what John Leguizamo set out to achieve with his latest solo show. That he succeeds mightily is a testament to the prodigious talents of this inspired author and animated performer.

"Latin History for Morons": John Leguizamo explains it all for us (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The first production in The Ahmanson’s new season is both a joy and a revelation.

Latin History for Morons isn’t exactly what you think it’s going to be. Sure, it’s an essential lesson. The setting is a classroom, after all. It’s here that Prof. Leguizamo wants to set the record straight, to dispel generations of ignorance and indifference about the achievements and contributions of his New World ancestors.

He means business. “Look,” he proclaims at the outset, “we’ve got a lot of work to do here, and very little time to do it.” What follows is a no-nonsense, insightful account of Latin culture’s greatest hits and heartbreaks, recited forcefully, punctuated by furiously scrawling key points on a blackboard for emphasis, and further enlivened by frequent interludes of some irresistibly crazy dance moves.

Leguizamo’s spiel goes something like this: We – by this he means Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Tainos from the Caribbean, and Native Americans from North America – were a mighty civilization long before Europeans arrived. We gave the world tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, rubber, the concept of zero, brain surgery, and a many other things that we get no credit for.

In return, we got guns, typhus, malaria, cholera, and other diseases from the Europeans who invaded in the 16th Century, decimating us in the less than a generation from a peaceful 78 million to 3.65 million.

Now, there’s a deal that Donald Trump would approve of.

Leguizamo is a courageous storyteller, willing to expose his own frailties and doubts.

The Mayans built sophisticated cities 1,000 years before Christ, Leguizamo explains. Now Latinos live in the age of the rapper Pitbull. What happened, he asks, to “our great indigenous civilizations”? And, more important, “How did we become so goddamned non-existent” today?

To to tackle these big questions, Leguizamo gets personal. This is where the show soars. When he learns that his son is being bullied by White kids at school, he resolves to teach the boy about his Latin heritage. But first the star must confront the hard truths about his own ignorance and his less-than-stellar parenting skills.

He undertakes a years-long research project to fill in the gaps in his education. (There’s an impressive reading list in the playbill for anyone who wants to do the same.)

In between dispensing the knowledge he has collected about Latin history, he re-enacts a series of sharply observed, alternately funny and tender conversations in which he plays all the parts – himself, his unnerved son, disapproving wife, the boy’s well meaning but clueless teachers and insensitive classmates, his own oblivious teachers and classmates when he was a teenager.

Leguizamo is a courageous storyteller, willing to expose his own frailties and doubts in order to show us how he tried to do what’s right by his son. You’ll have to see Latin History For Morons to find out if he achieved his goal. The end may surprise you.

But isn’t this why we go to the theater, not just to be entertained, but to hear the tough truths about the difficulties we face individually and as a society, to acknowledge and then accept our own complicity, and finally, to be given at least a glimmer of hope that we can all do much, much better?

There’s hope for us yet.

"Latin History for Morons," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org