John Leguizamo has been performing solo shows on and Off-Broadway for over twenty-five years. The autobiographical nature of much of this work gives his entire oeuvre the feeling of being distinct volumes in one long tome.
Now, the Colombian-born, New York City-raised performer whose ethnic and racial characterizations filled his previous shows with insights about the immigrant and minority experience in New York, comes to the stage with the natural next chapter in his creative evolution: how do you raise a teenage boy?
Leguizamo’s youth was spent in a much more dangerous version of New York City, and as one of the only Latino boys in his neighborhood, his days could be particularly violent, his experiences particularly fear-inducing. Now in his fifties, with a long, successful career on stage and screen, and his two children safely enrolled in a fine private school, he’s comforted by the knowledge that his teenage son won’t have to endure the travails through which he lived. Then John learns that a playground bully has set his malicious sights on his son, and slurs like “beaner” are being hurled in his direction.
Instead of taking his son to a boxing gym or a karate class, to get him to physically confront this bully, Leguizamo tries to empower his son with knowledge and cultural pride. He’s going to instruct him about his strong Latin heritage. The only problem is that Leguizamo doesn’t seem to know very much about it himself. Thus, begins Leguizamo’s investigation of that history. He’s going to teach himself, and then arm his son with, the stories of Aztec warriors, American revolutionaries, and an angering consideration of what might have been had Columbus’ three ships never made it ashore. The result of his efforts is Latin History For Morons, Leguizamo’s sixth one-man show.
Structurally, Latin History is working on three levels—an emotional journey about a father and son, a lecture on history, and dance-heavy entertainment breaks. The heart of the show and its narrative through-line is Leguizamo’s attempts to get through to his son, to relate and connect to him. The show could delve further. There’s more to be excavated in this relationship between two men with comparable lineage but very different upbringings and Leguizamo skims the surface.
There are some design elements that don’t always support this thread of the show. There are lighting changes that lack motivation and are unnecessary. However, when Leguizamo is imploring his son from just outside his bedroom we hear the sound of a door slamming to accompany the lighting shift, and we feel Leguizamo’s isolation and discouragement.
For the intellectually curious, there is the lecture segment—the history lesson based on what Leguizamo learned from reading books like Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in his attempts to educate himself and then his son. A mobile, two-sided blackboard rests stage center, and Leguizamo uses both sides to draw maps, list stats and make emphatic points.
The final structural level, the id of the show, is there for pure entertainment. Lights change, music starts, and Leguizamo is dancing tangos, sambas. Sometimes he’s giving an example of Latinx contributions to culture through these dances, but mostly he provides a little fun for the audience in the middle of what might otherwise be a heavy dose of cultural awareness and revisionist history. To be fair, the audience seemed to love these attempts at lighter, physical comedy. Leguizamo’s enthusiasm for his subject matter is readily expressed through his energetic performance. But the impact of some of his lesson, and the depth of the parent/child relationship are hampered by these lighthearted asides that do not move the show forward. I understand the inclusion, but the balance feels off. A search for cultural pride, identity, and the desire of a father to fight his son’s bullies, can be emotionally entertaining enough. He should have trusted this was the show’s greatest asset.
He frames much of the show in the “we” or “our” voice. However, the show and its history lessons will not just fill a Latinx crowd with pride, and outrage, but educate a broader audience on the contributions of a greater number of cultures to our society. The greatest compliment I could give the work is that it will force you to consider “our” history, “our” stories, and hopefully expand your definition of “our” people.
However, at some points, cultural sensitivity goes out the window in this show (as it has in past Leguizamo shows). It becomes a point of consideration for Leguizamo. He presents Montezuma, the Aztec ruler defeated by the Spanish conquistadors, as weak by portraying him as a flamboyantly gay man. Leguizamo’s brother is gay so that gets him a pass on this sort of stereotype reinforcement, he says. But does it? The offensive act here is not that he recognizes that some gay men talk, act, walk a certain way, but in associating that behavior with weakness, with low character, as he does here.
In other moments in the show, you see a man who was raised without a father and without today’s lessons around cultural sensitivity struggling to raise children who, with his help or not, are going to learn what is and isn’t acceptable from their peers and society at large. It’s good to see Leguizamo even lightly address these challenges, but he could have gone deeper in his exploration of how boundaries have changed, or haven’t. His children certainly seem to have a greater sense of cultural sensitivity than my generation did. On the other hand, slurs like “beaner” are still being flung around eighth-grade playgrounds.