The entire history of indigenous people in the pre-Columbus Americas, according to the timeline drawn by solo show veteran John Leguizamo, is as follows: First, there’s the era of the Mayans in 1,000 B.C. … and today there’s the age of music mogul Pitbull.
The diverse, fascinating and revolutionary heaps of history in between are mostly missing from mainstream grade school textbooks, as it was from Leguizamo’s childhood. With Latin History for Morons — a raucous, often funny and mostly entertaining non-stop 110-minute ride through the past — Leguizamo bestows bits of his recent self-education to audiences, which he refers to with the title’s derogatory term.
Leguizamo’s latest effort is at Downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre through Oct. 20 (a production was already filmed and available on Netflix) and follows the pattern of his popular previous productions, including Freak, Sexaholix and Ghetto Klown.
In each, he delivers outrageous, raunchy humor — punctuated with music and dancing — while flying seamlessly through a variety of characters, including his children, wife and several key players in the development and decimation of the Incas, Tainos, Mayans and other indigenous Americans. As usual, he’s an equal-opportunity offender, unafraid to make fun of gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.
Now in his mid-50s, Leguizamo has maintained his frenetic energy, but his core performance feels more sentimental. Perhaps the change is a byproduct of being a dad.
The jumping off point for Latin History is his eighth-grade son being bullied in school for his Latin heritage. To help his son discover heroes from his cultural roots, Leguizamo dives deep into history books, including Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and Charles Mann’s “1491.”
Leguizamo’s retellings are brief fanciful reenactments. His Columbus is portrayed as a Godfather-style Italian gangster who helps wipe out the Taino people. To become Andrew Jackson, he pats chalkboard erasers into his hair to turn it white. His Montezuma is effeminate and gay.
He argues that while European history is considered superior in modern America, it erased the memory of the people that developed remarkable civilizations, art and technology. Europeans’ biggest exports to the “new world,” he says, include syphilis and other diseases.
At one point he asks, “Why is all our art called folk art, and all of European art is called fine art, and then modern art is just our folk art gentrified?”
Learning about the past doesn’t help with his son’s problems of being bullied and not being able to find a hero for his class project. Leguizamo even goes into therapy to help his family and to deal with the deep anger he is experiencing as his son learns more about these past atrocities.
Leguizamo’s primary prop is a chalkboard, and scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides an adequate facsimile of a classroom to complete the effect. A bigger assistance comes from Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting, which blasts vibrant colors for dance segments, accompanied by a variety of lively mambo, samba and other dance music composed and designed by Bray Poor.
Working with a strong performer can be challenging. Director Tony Taccone missed opportunities to strengthen the piece by creating blocking that feels more organic and implementing fewer abrupt transitions. Instead, everything has an air of controlled chaos.
One smart move was to keep President Trump’s presence minimal. His name is mentioned only a few times, with an aside of “That’s for another lecture,” but it’s clear through statements about children in cages and several parallels drawn between past and present that Leguizamo is not pleased with the current administration.
Refraining from too much Trump bashing is smart because the foundation for the show centers on honoring the positives and remembering crucial elements of America that have been forgotten, such as Latinx people fighting in every war in the country’s history and Latinx women being a dominant force in starting new businesses.
By trying to fill in the once blank timeline with dozens of people, nations and accomplishments, Latin History for Morons gets a bit cluttered and haphazard, particularly because there are so many jokes mixed into the facts. Getting a mainstream audience excited about history isn’t easy, and his humor and honesty goes a long way toward making it fascinating.
Leguizamo succeeds in his objective of informing and entertaining audiences. They might be motivated to check out some of the “Required Reading List” books in the program as extra credit. With some work, perhaps they will ditch the moniker of moron.
Latin History for Morons runs through Oct. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. or