John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons is a one-man show that begins in a way that used to make me roll my eyes when I witnessed it as a student: A tweed-clad teacher whirls into the spotlight, arms full of books, ordering students to quiet down, “we have a lot to get through today, there’s no time for fun.”
Except, where my teachers were overworked, underpaid, forced to prepare way too many listless students for one standardized test after the next, Leguizamo takes his audience on a side-splitting crash course in Latin history that should be taught in every school. Seriously. We need to hear this.
The profanity-laced Latin History for Morons also proves every comedian sulking about how “comedy is dead!” because no one laughs at their archaic, problematic jokes dead wrong. After a successful run on Broadway in February of last year, Latin History for Morons came to DC’s National Theatre for three days in November.
The show covered the stories of long-ignored Latin historical figures that Leguizamo discovered while doing research. The story is part educational and touchingly autobiographical, detailing a difficult time in Leguizamo’s relationship with his son as he helped him face racist bullies and trouble at school.
The historical figures and stories that Leguizamo discovered were found in a desperate attempt to uncover a Latin hero for his son’s school project – and build confidence and pride in his cultural heritage. Discovering that he couldn’t find a single one in his son’s history book, Leguizamo hit the books himself.
Leguizamo not only tells one compelling story after the next, he cites himself and comments on the books he used. His journey through history points out commonly overlooked facts, like that Spanish conquistadors didn’t defeat native tribes with superior military skills, but with the sheer force of their own diseases.
His show walks us through the DNA breakdown of modern Latin Americans, the specific tribes that lived in America before Christopher “Columb-ass” “discovered” it, colonialism and the horrors that colonists brought to the Americas.
Although he takes us through history, Leguizamo doesn’t shy away from current politics. He tells the story of the selfish Montezuma, who betrayed his own people only to be tricked by “Putin, err, [Hernán] Cortés.”
The show also made fantastic use of props and costume. Leguizamo makes use of a chalkboard through the entire show, scribbling hilarious, haphazard maps and notes while he lectured. He drew his map of the Americas while nailing a Bob Ross impression, pointing out that DC, is where the impeachment hearings were happening to uproarious cheering from the crowd.
Leguizamo transformed himself from teacher to caricatures of historical figures with ease and creativity. His Andrew Jackson was created by running chalk through his hair. His Montezuma pranced around in red underwear while Leguizamo’s pants were used as a headdress later.
When I was first assigned a one-man show, I was skeptical. How entertaining can one person on a stage be? But Leguizamo was rarely still. He danced, sang, scribbled on a large chalkboard constantly and never stopped talking, somehow only needing a couple of short seconds to catch his breath in between each bit.
Despite Leguizamo’s energy and levity, the show took on some serious issues. While the conversation about representation is often focused on movies, TV shows and books, Latin History for Morons points out that erasure from the history books is kind of the first step. His call to action is for more comprehensive education that doesn’t vilify or completely ignore the existence and contributions of an entire race. As someone whose people are only ever portrayed as the bad guys in history books, it’s a call that resonates.
Leguizamo not only pointed out the erasure of Latinx people from American history, he also talked about how it impacts him. While re-enacting one of his own therapy sessions, Leguizamo’s therapist asks him: When you think of someone brave, who do you think of? When you think of a genius, who do you think of? And Leguizamo’s own answers were telling: They were all white people.
My favorite bit, though, was one that truly unites us across cultures: la chancla. While portraying his mother, Leguizamo’s version of the flip-flop is one that soars across the room to teach him a lesson and then flies back into his mother’s hand like a boomerang. In Egyptian Arabic, it’s called a shib-shib, but either way, it’s a tool of discipline that strikes fear into the hearts of brown kids everywhere.
Although Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” is no longer playing in DC, you can still experience it the next best way: Netflix.
For more information on the National Theatre’s upcoming slate, visit the website here.
National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com