It is easy to criticize one-man shows, especially ones that claim to be educational. However, “Latin History for Morons” is certainly more entertaining than any lecture or lesson you’ve ever attended before. John Leguizamo’s show at Studio 54 was inspired by his son being bullied and calling racial slurs. In response, Leguizamo started researching Latino history to find heroes for his son to write a report about. The outcome of this research is his two-hour show that claims to span 3,000 years of Latino history.
The framing device about Leguizamo’s son seems a bit forced, and he continually returns to scenes and caricatures of his family, including his Jewish wife and his detached teenage daughter. In addition to these recurring characters, Leguizamo provides lisping conquistadors, flamboyant Aztec kings, a sassy Alexis de Tocqueville, among many others. In all of his portrayals of historical Latinos, he draws heavily–perhaps too heavily–on modern-day racial stereotypes. He draws on a diverse canon of stereotypes including gay Latinos, dancing Latinos, combative Latinos, and more.
At times this is extremely comedic and feels effective; other times, it feels that it crosses the line of too crude and almost offensive. His claim, for example, of “it’s ok, I have a gay family member” feels misguided. Although the show certainly is educational, he seems to care more about the laughs than the lesson plan, and the result often jokes that border on the offensive. Leguizamo has a clear passion for educating his audience, but the structure of his piece is more anecdotal, and instead of providing a clear timeline (like he claims he will start at the beginning) it is more a messy hodgepodge of battles and massacres with conversations with his son mixed throughout.
The largest thing distracting from the lesson is Leguizamo’s desire for laughs. The show is advertised as 90 minutes but runs about two hours to due to his milking the jokes and giving the audience ample time to laugh. However, the comedy is probably the best part of the show and is absolutely what makes the show enjoyable. But the comedy does sometimes get in the way of the stated academic purpose of the piece.
It is almost impossible to ignore the potential similarities between “Latin History for Morons” and Michael Moore’s “The Terms of My Surrender,” the other political one-man show this season. But while Moore’s show seemed unproductive and preachy, “Latin History for Morons” is getting audiences talking about Latino culture, something that has been deeply ignored, demonized, and criminalized in our current political atmosphere. Maybe it’s the comedy that makes this show so much more enjoyable than its predecessor. It certainly isn’t the facts or the educational aspect, since Moore taught audiences much more than Leguizamo does. Perhaps it was the subtly of “Latin History.” It was political, but it also was comedic, had a family storyline, and felt like a playful lecture by a dilettante but a passionate professor. “The Terms of My Surrender,” on the other hand, was more of a middle-aged white man screaming at the audience about an incompetent president, void of any comedy or theatricality.
Regardless of whatever the secret ingredient is, something about “Latin History for Morons” works. Best of all, it provides audiences with a memorable and meaningful quote: “violence is the lowest form of communication”–a sentiment drawn from Latino culture that is perfectly applicable to our current moment. It leaves audiences not only laughing, but talking–about politics, about Latino culture, about racial stereotypes, and the potential uses of theater.