“I grew up without seeing people who looked like me on screen, on stage, or in textbooks. Latinx people have been kept outta the conversation for centuries, and it’s bout time ya’ll hear what we gotta say! No matter who you are, this is your chance to come out and finally get your degree from a ghetto scholar!” — John Leguizamo
It’s not often that a playwright/performer includes a mission statement as part of his/her show, but after nearly 30 years of off-Broadway and Broadway productions of his self-written one-man shows (all of which have toured across the country and played Chicago), actor John Leguizamo has set a goal for himself that is loftier and more complex than any of his previous works. Leguizamo is, of course, a noted film and television actor, but since 1991, he’s led what amounts to a double life as a gifted storyteller, relaying tales of his childhood, life as an actor, and the path that led to his current status as a husband and father of two
I’ve been fortunate to have seen all of his solo productions, including Mambo Mouth, Spic-o-Rama, Freak, Sexaholix… A Love Story, and Ghetto Klown. In fact, I even saw his current production, Latin History for Morons, in its 2018 Broadway run at the converted Studio 54. Directed by Tony Taccone, the show features deceptively lo-fi staging—consisting of a large, two-sided chalkboard; a chair; and stacks of books littering the floor that hide treasures that come out at various points. In his previous shows, Leguizamo frequently had costume changes and played a variety of characters from his life (including both his parents in more than one production), and the stories he told were divided like short stories that provided glimpses into his growing up poor, awkward, and above all else, Latino.
The framework of Latin History for Morons remains Leguizamo’s life, but this time around, he’s focusing on the next generation, in particular, his son who is being bullied at his private school by white students hurling racial slurs and other indignities (including calling him the King of Nothing, which seems to sting more than everything else). Leguizamo as protective father attempts to deal with the problem head on, by confronting the bully’s elitist dad, who assures him that neither he nor his son are racists. To help his son heal from these encounters, Leguizamo takes advantage of one of the boy’s student projects—to write an essay on his hero—and attempts to do an alarming amount of research on Latin heroes throughout history, examining stories of the Aztecs and Incas, and continuing through more recent heroes in American wars or civil rights leaders or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I believe Pitbull is mentioned at one point.
And while he’s discovering the collective, unsung history of all Latin people, he’s passing on this information to both his son and his audience. He hits us with staggering numbers about the genocides of entire cultures by Spanish settlers throughout the centuries, while emphasizing more recent accomplishments. Leguizamo is still giving each player in his story their own voice, including both of his children, his Jewish wife, his parents, his therapist, and a few of the historical figures discovered in his research.
Strewn among the stacks of books are props and costumes that are pulled out at specific moments (Rachel Hauck does a terrific job with scenic design), while the chalkboard is written on and erased so frequently and with such ferocity, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the lessons being taught, which is more or less the point of the show—there’s so much history out there, it’s ludicrous that it can’t be included in school curricula.
Whereas his primary goal with past solo performances was to entertain—and make no mistake, Latin History for Morons is exceptionally funny—it’s clearly just as important for Leguizamo to educate his audience without it feeling like homework or a lecture. There is also an undercurrent of outrage, since so many of these stories are absent from textbooks, which may explain the high percentages of Latinx high school dropouts. If you can’t spot yourself within the history you’re being taught, what is the point?
Having seen the show twice, I was able to take in Alexander V. Nichols’ subtle but important lighting design, which often replicates the emotion and mood of the story being told. There are times when Leguizamo is lit only by a single spotlight, and other moments when he’s dancing among disco lights, as he often does during his performances. (A few missed music cues on opening night did little to detract from the otherwise soaring show.) By combining elements of Leguizamo’s previous one-man works with a more substantive backdrop, Latin History for Morons is the perfect balance of entertainment and a greater sense of purpose. As a performer, he has always dominated the stage, but when the stakes are elevated—both in terms of his son’s future and in the greater historical context—Leguizamo’s presence is a new level of commanding.
Latin History for Morons continues at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., through November 3. Buy tickets for $26.50-$86.50.
Latin History for Morons is celebrating Halloween by inviting patrons to dress up as their favorite Latinx hero for the October 31 performance. Patrons can purchase $31 tickets for tonight only at BroadwayInChicago.com by using the code HALLOWEEN.