By Tulis McCall
John Leguizamo‘s Latin History for Morons, now at the Public Theater is not for morons, and it is not just a history lesson. It is an homage to heritage, to parenthood, to Leguizamo’s family and specifically to his son. Not bad.
Of course as soon as I wrote the above I transcribed my notes and discovered that there was a boatload of history in this show. None of it very happy making.
At first I thought this might be the Latino version of Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short or New York Story, both of which treat the subjects at hand like dysfunctional families (and aren’t they?) – but this is more like a treatise being given by a slightly mad professor.
Frankly, it is a wonder that there are any descendants of Native Americans/Latinos left on this planet. We treated them sort of like Mike Pence treated gay people when he made same sex marriage illegal in Indiana and arrested anyone who applied for it. Kind of like that.
Leguizamo came up fighting. School for him was like Lord of the Flies without adult supervision. One teacher had a mirror on the blackboard to save him the trouble of having eyes installed in the back of his head. He never had a good comeback for anything ever – especially when he was angry. So when his son experienced bullying in eighth grade, Leguizamo took it as a personal mission. He was going to figure out a way to show his son that his Latin heritage (never mind the Jewish part his wife provided) was something to be proud of.
The only problem was that he, himself, knew squat.
He begins with numbers. Latinos are 40% Indian, 25% black, 25% Jewish, 25% Lebanese, 40% no idea and 25% white. This comes out to 180% and that is just fine.
Hundreds of years ago there were 9 million Incas, 8 million North American Indians, 3 million Caribbean Indians, 6 million Mexican Indians for a total of 26 million people. After the GREAT EXTERMINATION there were 1.3 million. Period. The Indians gave us tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, avocados, corn, Bar-b-que, tango, salsa, mambo, tobacco, cotton, aqueducts and pyramids, and oh yeah, gold. In return the Spaniards gave them syphilis.
Before the Spaniards came there had been 1000 years of peace. Tainos Indians in the Caribbean fought with wooden swords in order not to kill anyone.
Columbus was the Donald Trump of the New World. Columbus came to the new world on the premise of Your Wallet is in your back pocket, now it is in mine.
In 1650 King Philip too 500,000 worth of gold objects and melted it all down into Spanish coins. That would be like taking the David by Michelangelo and reducing it to a kitchen counter.
There is plenty of blame to throw around. From hundreds of years ago to present day slurs by politicians. From war declared against indigenous peoples, to the part they played as enlisted soldiers, to Reparation, to the Iroquois based Constitution, to lynchings to the Trail of Tears. This is a litany of murder, fear and madness. The only thing that keeps us all sane during the story is Lequizamo’s relentless quest to help his son that catapults him from one situation to another. His children inspire and baffle him. His wife challenges him. His therapist dismisses him.
Nothing stops him.
He scrawls on the blackboard with various colored chalks and then messes everything up with some insanely filthy erasers, which he is not above using on his own self. He comes close to flinging books at us: The History of the Indes by Bartolomé de las Casas; Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (also titled Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years) by Jared Diamond; People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
Late in the narrative is told by his daughter that his journey has been whitewashed and misogynistic. He rectifies this briefly by telling us of Loreta Janeta Velazquez and showing us her book, The Woman in Battle: A Narrative of the Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Otherwise Known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, Confederate States Army. Ahem.
The evening concludes, not because Leguizamo has run out of story, but because he has run out of time. He could talk until he falls over, but politeness and respect for our attention span makes him wind up the tale with a nod to his son. The real journey here is not located in the past. It is about pulling the past into the present and dancing to the tune of the Leguizamo Family Orchestra.
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.