What’s a father to do when he finds out his teen age son is being bullied at school? How do you grow up Latino and proud in contemporary America? Are today’s bullies just another incarnation of yesteryear’s Spanish Conquistadores? These are just some of the questions asked and answered, in his trademark agitator style, by performer and writer John Leguizamo, who unleashed his considerable wit, as well as scores of hilarious characters, on the stage of The Public Theater last night , where his latest opus premiered to a packed house.
Now, it is no secret that Mr. Leguizamo’s hyperbolic performance style has endeared him to American audiences for several decades, and if the intensity of the applause that greeted him last night when he entered stage is any indication, his fan base is still wide, enthusiastic and spans generations (lots of young people in the audience, what a treat!). But finding him at the top of his game, with undiminished energy and unwavering commitment to his craft was a welcome occurrence, if not exactly a surprise.
Armed with chalk and eraser and a blackboard that is occasionally used in rather ingenious ways, as well as a stage littered with books and crammed with research papers (the scenic design is by Rachel Hauck), Mr. Leguizamo weaves a compelling lesson on race, history, pride and parenting. Faced with the daunting task of raising a moody teenager, who punctuates most interactions with the slamming of his bedroom door, our fledgling professor must overcome his own ghetto upbringing so that his insecure son may stand up to the playground bullies without running the risk of becoming one himself. To achieve this lofty goal our self-described ghetto-nerd begins an exhaustive inquiry into his Latino heritage, amassing a trove of statistical data and historical fact that both explain his offspring’s insecurities and aim to heal them.
We learn that the Tainos, among the first indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida, were so gentle that they fought with wooden swords so as not to kill their opponents; that ancient, priceless Mayan and Incan gold artifacts were pillaged by the Spaniards and melted into bullion for the benefit of European aristocracy; that machismo, which did not exist among the native inhabitants of Central America, is nothing but a Spanish import.
But fear not. None of this bookish information is presented in a manner even remotely pedantic. Mr. Leguizamo’s lesson is interwoven with such bits of physical comedy and impersonation that include poking fun at his own psychoanalyst (who attends to his yet untreated ghetto rage), to the physicist Stephen Hawking and even to Mahatma Gandhi, who evidently couldn’t really think straight because he was always hungry. And when faced with the prospect of having to elaborate on the spreading of syphilis throughout the Caribbean basin by the Spaniards in the 16th century, Mr. Leguizamo doesn’t even shy away from simulating intercourse with a sheep (he’s the sheep). Our higher education, however, wouldn’t be complete if we were not made aware of the intrinsic biases of our own English language, that describes European-centric artistic output as ‘Fine Art’ but subtly dismisses indigenous, ancient artistic practices as ‘Folk Art’ (modern art, it follows, is nothing but ‘gentrified’ folk art).
‘Latin History for Morons’, it should be noted, is no mere display of histrionics or catalog of zingy one-liners. Mr. Leguizamo might relish lacing his material with off-color jokes and broad humor, but he’s well aware of the rage inherent in taking a journey to a past filled with genocidal rape, ethnic cleansing and brutal enslavement. That he and his son should both emerge at the end refreshed and renewed, and once again in touch with their inner heroes, is a much greater achievement than that of any bloody Conquistador.
Latin History for Morons – Created and performed by John Leguizamo, Directed by Tony Taccone. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols, and original music and sound design by Bray Poor.
The Public Theater (Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis; Executive Director, Patrick Willingham) presents the New York premiere of LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS, extended through Sunday, April 23. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Public Theater Member and Partner tickets, as well as single tickets starting at $80, can be accessed now by calling (212) 967-7555, visiting www.publictheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street.