Hoots, hollers, whistles, and wild applause greeted John Leguizamo as he entered the Ahmanson Theatre stage. The star of his one-man Latin history lesson quickly quieted down the audience saying there was a lot of material to cover. Dressed in a conservative outfit, he quickly assumed a professorial demeanor (but not for long) immediately launching into a 110-minute, non-stop, hilarious, head spinning, sometimes irreverent, re-telling of the mostly invisible rich Latin legacy.
You might be wondering why this highly gifted actor/writer was inspired to write his one-man show and take it on a national tour. It seems that in addition to being bullied at school and called a “beaner,” it began with his young son’s assignment to write an essay on a great Latin hero and the search to find such a person. The American history books did not have a great deal written about Latin civilizations or heroes, so thus began Leguizamo’s quest to find those unsung heroes. He talks about his research, comically breaking down 3,000 years of history. In a rapid, machinegun delivery, he outlines the accomplishments and contributions to humanity made by the Aztec Empire, Mayans, and Incas. He explains how all the gold was stolen from the Aztecs, which was melted down and used for coins by the King of Spain. He references his quest for knowledge as an “intellectual Jihad.”
With a large blackboard equipped with an eraser, which also doubled as a costume enhancer, he began to scrawl historic notes depicting the rise and fall of great Latin empires beginning with the Aztecs, who the history books say were invaded and ultimately conquered by Hernán Cortés, in 1521, claiming Mexico for Spain. Leguizamo added that most of the natives died from diseases brought to them by the European conquerors including syphilis, which he deliberately misspelled, daring anyone in the audience to spell it correctly. He used the analogy that “If your wallet is in your back pocket and I take it, now it’s mine.” Despite being bullied, his son is anti-violence and quoted Gandhi to which his father replied, “Gandhi couldn’t think straight because he was always hungry.” His son cited an incorrect piece of history to which dad quipped, “Oh, my son is learning history from Mel Gibson.”
Under the tight direction of Tony Taccone, what is so compelling about Leguizamo’s work is his ability to morph into a variety of characters ranging from his soft spoken son, to the school bully’s father, a pompous New England type white guy with an affected accent, and his son’s teacher, to his shrink, who points out that he might have unexpressed “ghetto rage” emanating from his childhood, to his soft-spoken Jewish wife, and Sigmund Freud, for whom he quickly applied a tiny beard. His transitions from the different characters back to himself, were mercurial and seamless. With a heavy dose of unending laugh lines, which kept the action moving swiftly, he describes the conquistadors conquering the Aztecs, which included raping and pillaging, as being like “N.B.A. players at a Kardashian pool party.” With no end to his amazing talent and imagination, much to the audience’s delight, Leguizamo’s demonstrated, in rapid transition, a sampling of Latin dances including samba, mambo, tango, and an Irish Jig, all thought to have evolved from ancient Aztec and Inca rituals.
Soon there was very little black peeking through on the blackboard as this theatrical dynamo scribbled note after note, some with comical or sexual illustrations, with an occasional jab at the current state of American politics, which went over really well with this enthusiastic audience. I wondered how any Trump supporter in the audience, if there was one, would react, but never a boo was uttered. Ah. But I digress. Soon we learn that there were Latin patriots who fought in the Civil War and, in fact, fought in every American war, illustrating how whitewashed history books are. As a matter of fact, a young Latina woman named Loreta Janeta Velázquez disguised herself as a man and became “Lieutenant Harry T. Buford,” a Confederate soldier.
Leguizamo’s lessons were not without current reference as to what’s happening to Latinos today who, under this administration, are being as oppressed as they were historically, with the added horror of children being ripped out of their mothers’ arms and put in cages. He also referenced what was done to the American Indians citing the tragic Cherokee “Trail of Tears.”* At one very serious point, seated in a chair with a spotlight shining only on him, he rattled off statistics on how many Latinos served not only in the Civil War, but in all American wars, including accomplishments from every sector of society including politics, distinctly saying “Not Ted Cruz.” Some of the inventions which came out of Mexico include, color television, ballpoint pen, artificial heart, the electric brake, contraceptive pill, and from Perú, the neonatal artificial bubble.
Leguizamo’s “Latin History For Morons” is a brilliantly conceived piece of writing, wonderfully executed by this most gifted actor who gives a tour-de-force performance. While you will laugh you way through the evening (or afternoon) underneath it all is the hidden subtext of just what the “white” world has visited upon not only the Latin population, but the Jewish population as well. I wish this most entertaining production could also serve as a cautionary “tale” of just what dangers we are facing in our country that are manifesting in both a symbolic and actual “ethnic cleansing.” That said, if you need non-stop laughter to get you out of the national doldrums, this play is a perfect prescription to accomplish just that.
*During the 1830s, the federal government forced relocation of Eastern Woodlands Indians living in the southwest, to territory west of the Mississippi River. The tribes included Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole. Only 3,500 of the 15,000 Creeks survived.
The WOW Agency Presents: “Latin History for Morons”
Writer-performer: John Leguizamo
Director: Tony Taccone
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Luke
Lighting Design: Alexander V. Nichols
Original Music & Sound Design: Bray Poor
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Run: Wednesday – Friday: 8:00 pm
Saturday: 2:00 pm & 8:00 pm
Sunday: 1:00 pm & 6:30 pm
Tickets: $30 – $145
Closing: Sunday, October 20, 2019- 1:00 pm
Reservations: (213) 972-4400 or
Groups: (213) 972-7231.
Deaf community: CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCESS.
(Please check with box office or online for deleted or added performances)