Beginning with Mambo Mouth, the 1990 solo show at The American Place Theatre that marked his debut with the quiet subtlety of a cherry bomb in a trash can, John Leguizamo has filled his down-time between movies (the Ice Age franchise; Summer of Sam) with some of the most deceptively funny riffs on matters of consequence ever to be called comedy. An incomparable mimic, his subjects include growing up Latino in Jackson Heights, Queens; being type-cast as a pimp, drug dealer, skirt chaser (or, more typically, all three at the same time); his family, your family, my family. No one is safe. (Full disclosure: Leguizamo wrote the introduction to Wynn Place Show, my book about The American Place Theatre. No money changed hands, I’ve never socialized with him and I’m still not safe…)
In Latin History For Morons, which opened tonight at Studio 54 following earlier runs at the Public Theater and Berkeley Rep, his target is considerably larger and nothing less than an educational system devoted to erasing the contributions of Latinos to the history of the U.S. Erasing is indeed a misnomer, for it suggests the existence of something to erase. In the case of Latin American history, he discovers through his young son’s school history assignment, it was never there to begin with. The boy needs to write about a hero, but when Dad urges him to find one among his Hispanic forebears, the textbooks are worse than useless.
Thus, LHFM – to paraphrase Pogo, he has met the morons and the morons are us – a history of the so-called New World from the point of view of its oldest denizens. Taking off from his epiphany in reading Howard Zinn’s corrective A Peoples’ History Of The United States, Leguizamo interweaves his own story with a hilarious retelling of the advances and destruction of the Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations, the arrival of the “conquistadors” and the rise of modern Latin culture. In exchange for gold, tobacco and corn, not to mention their raped wives and daughters, the Native Americans got syphilis, rats, pigeons and, of course, those all-important trinkets. Avoid the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving dinner! he warns the Wampanoags: “If you feed them, they will never leave.”
That’s one of the few lines I can quote without the use of asterisks, exclamation points and question marks. Even in Spanish the dirty words sound too dirty to repeat. I wish someone would tell him that the famous headline he quotes (I won’t give it away here) was in the Daily News, not the Post. There are visual aids, many jokes (Trump, Weinstein and Weiner make cameos) and a sober mission at work, all effectively pushed to the max by director Tony Taccone. If you want the condensed version, listen to Randy Newman’s “The Great Nations Of Europe.”
But Leguizamo, I realized on this second viewing, also has a personal and more immediate agenda, which is to prove himself a good enough role model for his son, who is suffering both the universal tribulations of early adolescence and the specific cruelties offered at the hands of bully bigots-in-training. The conclusion of this rich entertainment isn’t what you expect – Leguizamo’s genius rests in part in his ability to continually surprise us – which makes it all the more satisfying. Post-script: Leguizamo’s parents and family are Borinqueños and he has committed a ton of his time to assisting the victims of Hurricane Maria. On his behalf, find a group sending water/food/money, and contribute.