John Leguizamo’s gift for acting is something all of us who’ve seen his TV and movie roles already know — From Carlito’s Way to Moulin Rouge to ER to the recent Netflix hit When They See Us. But not until you see him live on stage, doing comedy, dancing, and impersonations, do you become aware of the scope of the man’s talents. In his one-man play, Latin History for Morons, currently at the Ahmanson Theatre, Lequizamo displays all these talents while he informs, educates and, most of all, entertains in ways you won’t soon forget.
The premise of the play concerns the actor’s middle school son who has been bullied and called names like “beaner,” which inspires his father to share the many reasons he should be proud of his Latin heritage. Of course, there are plenty of musicians and pop stars — Jennifer Lopez, Carlos Santana — to refer to, but what about history as taught in school? Leguizamo decided to do some homework, reading any and all books that might provide accurate information on this subject. And that is not easy, for as we all know, the history books in the U.S. have been written to fit the narrative of those who wrote them, namely — White America. He proceeds to share his own education with the audience by actually showing us the books from which he quotes the relevant but limited information.
The stage resembles a combination of a living room and a school classroom, with a blackboard, chairs and shelves. When the music takes over, which is often, the quality of the sound system along with the lighting effects in the background are fantastic, and as he dances (reminding the audience we brought you tango, mambo, cumbia, etc.) we are immediately taken in a new direction.
Latinos are for the most part Spanish, Indian and black, with the remaining 20 percent, well, “nobody knows what that fuck it is,” Leguizamo notes. He reminds us that Latinos fought in the American wars disproportionately in greater numbers and were also the most decorated group for valor and courage, and yet, “we are often made to feel invisible in this country.”
Referring to the book, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, he shares that Latinos gave America tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, anesthesia, and so much more, while the Europeans brought over mostly diseases.
The play is continuously moving with information, and Leguizamo’s fast-talking style, filled with various dialects and recreations from the past, bounces around with music, props, audience interaction and laughter. I found these changes extremely enjoyable. Not once was I bored during the two-hour show. As a one-man show, it is in fact more engrossing than if other actors had been on stage. At no time do we see or hear from anyone other than Leguizamo, nor do we wish we did, for he manages to hold our attention completely, engaging us with conversation and thoughtful questions that feel fresh and improvised.
Obviously, guidelines and segues are pre-planned to keep the flow of the show going (you can see the basic structure of the show in a version he filmed last year, currently on Netflix), but from the perspective of the audience, his material and delivery appears to come off the top of his head, and the comic timing is on par with the best, recalling Robin Williams’ frantic stand-up.
The final takeaway from Latin History for Morons — which is more relevant than ever thanks to our current government — is that when it comes to the many contributions of Hispanics in the U.S., most of us are not well informed. Leguizamo hopes to convey this in no uncertain terms and hopefully by bringing it to light, to create change. As the play ends, we come to realize that the word “moron” does indeed apply to most of us… and this comes from a Latin man who thought he knew everything about his own heritage, but found out differently and was glad he did.