John Leguizamo has a history lesson to teach, both to us and his unseen son. The stage of Studio 54 is a kind of cluttered classroom which also doubles as rooms of his own home.
The main prop is a blackboard on which, with chalk and clouds of dust whipped up by his one-man performance, Leguizamo sketches thousands of years of much-ignored Latin American history and its most substantial figures.
The show’s title may sound funny, and a signal to a comic history lesson, but it is also Leguizamo’s first bit of truth-telling: When it comes to Latin history (Mayan, Aztec, Incan, and more modern too) Leguizamo tells us a lot of us are morons right at the outset.
There are two strands running in parallel in Latin History for Morons, which has now reached Broadway, directed by Tony Taccone: the swathe of history itself—and the racism, cultural extinction, reassertion, and pride it encapsulates—and the bullying at school of Leguizamo’s son, whom he tenderly calls “honey” and “buddy.” The election of President Trump, and his much-criticized racism, gives the show an urgent current impetus.
Leguizamo’s son’s bullying is rooted in racism, and the audience sighs sympathetically as Leguizamo relates yet another night of torment suffered by the poor lad as he comes home and relates it all. Leguizamo’s son is also working on a school project to write about a Latin-American hero, and can’t think of one, hence the history lesson.
Leguizamo does tackle the bully’s father, and the school, but apparently unsatisfactorily. Leguizamo, dressed in a ruffled history teacher’s suit and shirt, does not seem like the kind of guy to put up with any kind of behavior like this, and you find yourself wondering: Did this bullying really go unchecked for so long, and the bully unpenalized, particularly given Leguizamo’s own fame? (The bully’s father is also a nasty piece of work.)
This isn’t the first time Leguizamo has bought his own life to the stage, after Sexaholix… A Love Story, and Ghetto Klown (based on his memoir, Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life).
The history lesson slightly struggles to be the prime object of attention, as Leguizamo’s teaching methods emerge as the true star. Morons is the most high-energy and comic history lesson you have ever sat through: a riot of figures, facts, invective, and scrawling on the chalk-board, mashed up with Leguizamo’s own passions for sex and dance, and memories of his own life. Leguizamo plays himself and everyone else, from his son to his wife and daughter, to characters like the bully’s father and Moctezuma.
Columbus is characterized as the “Donald Trump of the New World,” and, with a little bit of that chalk dust, watch Leguizamo’s genius transformation into Andrew Jackson.
It is a dazzling and exhausting (to perform and watch) performance, and effective most in its quieter moments when Leguizamo tries to comes to terms with the history he is telling, and the terrible suffering and disavowal Latinos have suffered, despite their innumerable contributions to building America and helping when it has fought its wars.
Morons is entertaining and damning all at once, although the frenzied combination of history and personal story may mean that, if you really want to learn some history, you should bring a pen to take notes.
Leguizamo’s performance is truly electric, and he manages seemingly impossible emotional transitions within the 95-minute show with ease: the anger necessary to evoke the genocide of 26 million Native Americans in America’s bid to Westernize itself, alongside episodes like the “Trail of Tears,” is just as on-point as the comedy of recalling how a friend and he got into a fight with another guy, his friend’s attempts to pacify the situation making Leguizamo’s beating worse.
That fight scene includes Leguizamo mentioning the word “faggot” as something leveled against the aggressor. He immediately regrets saying it, he says, knowing it to be offensive on multiple levels.
But then what to make of Leguizamo’s gay Moctezuma? He imagines the Aztec leader as a lisping, mincing gay man, and gets a lot of laughs from the audience for this. Is this known to be true? A rudimentary look online suggests not conclusively at least. (It’s certainly not the most memorable thing about him.) If you’re going to paint Moctezuma as gay, why does he have to be such a one-note stereotype?
Any members of the audience wary of whooping along with these camp theatrics are assured that Leguizamo’s brother is gay, and that Leguizamo himself is pro-LGBT. He says that when you’re a young straight actor you realize that the best-looking women hang out with the gay guys, as if that was the most convincing advert for acquiring an open and inclusive mind.
The qualifications suggests that Leguizamo knows how his Moctezuma might look to some in the audience, and so deploys his brother and progressive credentials to neutralize criticism.
There is also another weirdly staged segment about the Cuban-born Loreta Janeta Velázquez, in which the fact she dressed as a male Confederate soldier to fight in the Civil War is played again for the most basic of laughs. Sure the show is comic-framed and Leguizamo’s comedy physical and knockabout, but to convey Velázquez’s story one might wish for something more than high-pitched voices and fake mustaches.
There is another telling qualification toward the end, when Leguizamo recalls his daughter querying that her dad’s history has been mainly focused on wars, and has pretty much excluded women.
His daughter is right, Leguizamo accepts quietly on stage, but by then it’s too late to redress the balance, and would suggest that when she did say it during the creation of the show it didn’t lead her father to redraw the parameters of the show to address the significant omission she rightly points out.
By including it, just as he includes the shoutout to his gay brother, Leguizamo seems to be accepting a shortcoming he knows the play may be guilty of, but that he is also unwilling to change. At least Frida Kahlo gets a shoutout before the gallop to the end and the revelation of who Leguizamo’s son chooses to be his hero.
By then, both Leguizamo and his audience are out of breath. Class dismissed.
Latin History for Morons is at Studio 54, 254 West 54th St., New York City, until Feb. 4.