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Off Broadway Review: John Leguizamo’s ‘Latin History for Morons’

Variety logo Variety 3/28/2017 Frank Rizzo
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It’s never too late to be educated, especially when it’s as entertaining and personal as John Leguizamo’s class in culture, comedy and parenting in his latest solo show at The Public, following a run last year at Berkeley Repertory Theater. In “Latin History for Morons,” an older and more mature Leguizamo — well, older, anyway, at 52 — is in autodidact mode in this sometimes hilarious, sometimes tender-hearted Ted Talk with props, dancing (he’s still got the moves) and a well-used blackboard.

The show’s story arc traces Leguizamo’s dilemma as a supportive yet clueless parent when his teenage son is faced with the belittling of his heritage by a school bully who brags about his ancestors while Leguizamo’s son is at a loss to point to his. His son, whom he endearingly calls “Buddy,” goes into a tailspin when faced with a middle school research assignment to write about a hero, something in which dad is all too happy to help — with mixed results.

It also sets Leguizamo on his own personal journey, confronted by his own ignorance of Latin history that for him begins with the Mayans and then flatlines until the age of rapper Pitbull. So dad hits the books and internet to fill in the history that was denied him in school.

With increasing manic obsession, he shares these revelations with his son — and us — using plenty of data and details he discovers, and then puts his own comic spin on it all. One of the most startling facts is his realization of the amount of Native American DNA in most Latins, including his own Colombian and Puerto Rican ancestry.

But its Leguizamo’s charismatic storytelling gifts about his own family that make it personal, funny and endearing. The lecture would engage the sleepiest of students — or theatergoers. Even when his digressions have digressions, he’s still able to engage his audience — or at least keep the narrative ball in play — until the focus of his instructional stand-up re-focuses back to the father-son story.

Staged with playful inventiveness by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and a set by Rachel Hauck that is evocative but doesn’t distract, Leguizamo is again a whirlwind of energy, temper and wicked charm. He’s difficult not to like, even when some of his impersonations may produce a wince and an observation or two feels re-purposed.

There’s an endearingly introspective side to him as he grapples with his own inability to connect to his son, feeling that he is making things worse in his effort to make things better. His son sees Leguizamo’s enthusiastic heritage discoveries as being on the losing, expendable and depressing side of history.

The writer of such dynamic pieces as “Freak,” “Sexaholix” and “Ghetto Klown,” Leguizamo shows a sweet side in his parental resilience and aching desperation to connect to a son whom he feels is drifting away. In his latest cultural probe of identity, class and heritage the teacher becomes the student, learning that sometimes son knows best.

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