Theater Review: Smallpox Stories That Slay, in Latin History for Morons

Leguizamo 101. Photo: Matthew Murphy

John Leguizamo knows exactly how to respond to the inevitable applause that greets movie actors when they make a first entrance onstage. He tells us to shut up. “Okay, people, stop, stop! Settle down,” he snaps with charming brusqueness as he bustles around Rachel Hauck’s cluttered set, setting down his coffee cup amidst piles of books, file cabinets, and educational props. “Look, we’ve got a lot of work to do here and very little time. Cuz I gotta undo your whole education and the entire way you think, and it’s not gonna be easy — cuz that shit’s in there deep.

Leguizamo is far from the only person making theater right now with this ambitious goal. Our awareness of just how much is wrong with the country we live in is at Code Red. The new vernacular is one of apocalyptic excoriation, whether we’re discussing the latest political shit-storm or posting memes on Facebook: “Well, the world is a racist/sexist/xenophobic/transphobic/pick-your-phobic garbage fire, BUT LOOK AT THIS CUTE CAT!” Plenty of plays are tackling issues of system failure, miseducation, and underrepresentation with dogged earnestness. And while the sprightly Latin History for Morons — now playing at Studio 54 in a transfer from its joint premieres at Berkeley Rep and the Public — has its fair share of sincerity, it’s also got a leg up on some of its fellow pieces of sociopolitical theater: the unmistakable, irresistible sense of humor of its creator and star.

The show is a comic crash course in — duh — Latin history, a time line that stretches, as Leguizamo illustrates on his blackboard, from the Mayans in 1,000 B.C. to, “well, what is this? The age of Pitbull?” The point is that for the vast majority of us, given the blinding whiteness of most American history textbooks, there’s a big ol’ blank space in between. “How did we become so nonexistent?” Leguizamo asks, pointing to that empty chalk line. “If you don’t see yourself represented outside of yourself, you feel invisible.”

Latin History’s emotional arc follows its author’s quest to find his middle-school-age son that kind of representation to look up to. Despite the “very fancy private school” his son attends, Leguizamo discovers that the poor kid is experiencing “the same racial rite of passage as I did.” He’s being bullied — pushed around and called a “beaner” by some white kid whose definitely-not-racist father gives generously to the school’s diversity program. “If he’s gonna call my son names,” Leguizamo tells this self-satisfied fellow parent, “he should at least call him by his proper slur. ‘Beaners’ are for Mexicans. My son’s actually a ‘spic, greaseball, hebe, kike.’” But seriously, folks — seeing his son suffer, Leguizamo does what any loving, secretly hugely nerdy parent would do: dives into research. He will fill in the lost timeline! He will learn all there is to know about the people he and his son come from, the cultures that our whitewashed history lessons have elided. And most important, he’ll find his son a Latin Hero.

Of course, what our dedicated dad soon starts to discover is that the search for a hero — at least in the conventional sense of “victor” — is a difficult and demoralizing one in a history marked by repeated culture-and-population-devastating genocides. Waving a copy of the Pulitzer Prize–winning bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel in the air, Leguizamo uses it to attack “the going Eurocentric narrative” that the losers of history’s battles were somehow intrinsically weak. Were America’s natives decimated by the conquistadors because ‘the Europeans had superior weapons, or intellect, or genes?’ No!” He throws the book down, “No, what they really had were superior germs … Cortez had to wait a whole year for the Aztecs to lose two thirds of their population to European smallpox” before he could take out the rest with guns and steel.

It’s a sobering education, but Latin History is never a slog. At moments it even brings to mind something of Hamilton’s high-energy Schoolhouse Rock sensibility: Leguizamo knows that one of the best ways to teach is to entertain. By leaning merrily into didacticism, he actually avoids feeling preachy: This is the game we signed up for, after all. We’re the morons, happily here for our history lesson. And Leguizamo keeps us laughing all the way through.  

Some of the giggles that fill the theater at his educational antics come with hesitation. His is an older brand of comedy, more like classic stand-up — rife with a smiling, mischievous, equal-opportunity-offensiveness that we just don’t experience much anymore. And honestly? It’s often pretty refreshing. Leguizamo is a first-rate mimic, and in the course of Latin History’s 100 minutes, he bounces through impressions of everyone from his wife (“She’s Jewish, so she’s very intolerant of intolerance”), to his therapist who sounds like Tim Gunn, to Stephen Hawking, to a group of freed slaves, to both kinds of Indians (yep, dots and feathers, as the don’t-say-that-shit-anymore joke goes), to a decidedly limp-wristed interpretation of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. “I can make fun of Moctezuma cause my brother’s gay, so I have gay immunity,” Leguizamo explains, grinning. “My brother is actually super gay. He wears a cape and everything.”

Might Leguizamo be pushing some sensitivity buttons? Sure. But he’s plenty smart about the fact that he’s pushing them. Comedy — which so often comes from a loss of dignity — is a tricky business in an era when we’re daily fighting to afford dignity to all. One touchy but honestly hilarious sequence in Latin History involves Leguizamo getting sucker punched by a man who picks a fight with him on the street — a direct result of him taking too long to formulate an insult for this guy “without hurting anybody else’s feelings!”: “Bitch! No, no, no! I don’t want to put women down! … Yo, retard! No, no, what did those poor innocent kids ever do to me?!”

If this kind of joke bothers you, well, maybe you shouldn’t brush up on your Latin history. But that would be your loss. Leguizamo has a lot of value to share and an overflow of charm to share it with. He could have used a slightly more rigorous editor: Certain devices start to feel overused (the sound effect of his son’s door slamming in his face happens a few too many times to stay funny), and the show’s emotional plot veers toward the predictable and sentimental. But such foibles feel minor relative to Latin History’s abundance of humor and heart. Here’s a dad working to make a better world for his kids, a world where they can see and celebrate themselves, and his most powerful tool really is laughter. Moral gravity is not our only weapon against the dark.

Latin History for Morons is at the Roundabout at Studio 54 through February 4.

Theater Review: Latin History for Morons Slays’ Em