Monday, July 11, 2016

"John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons"

John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons
John Leguizamo
(In co-production with The Public Theatre)

John Leguizamo
Arriving in coat, vest, and tie (but also jeans and sneakers) to hoots and hollers of an already-adoring audience, John Leguizamo immediately announces, “Settle down, settle down ... We have a lot of work to do ... I got to reboot you about what you think about Latin people.”  To illustrate the extent most of us know about this history, he draws a timeline that begins in 1000 BC with the great Mayan dynasty and then is blank until the present, which he labels “The Age of Pitbull” (i.e., nickname of Armando Pérez, a currently popular, Latino-American rapper).  That is most people’s Latin history knowledge, according to our soon-to-be-prof.

John Leguizamo
Over the next ninety minutes, the coat, vest, and tie go off and on again, becoming props and costume pieces as various characters come to life in the newest of the writer/performer’s semi-autobiographical tales, John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons.  Loved for his film and television jocularity as well as multi-award winning stage shows such as Mambo Mouth, Freak, and Klass Klown, John Leguizamo returns to Berkeley Repertory Theatre (in a co-production with New York’s The Public Theatre) to educate us morons in the audience (as he early-on calls us) about the contributions Latin peoples have made to world and U.S. history.  But since this is John Leguizamo, these mostly unknown, untold facts, heroes, and stories will be revealed with much good-natured mimicry, over-the-top hilarity, a few time-outs for cool dance moves, and genuinely heart-warming self-disclosures about him and his family.

The fast-talking, full-of-jive-and-jokes actor unveils the results of his Latin history research while also accounting his efforts to help his failing eighth-grade son to identify and research a hero for a year-ending history project.  The assignment becomes much more the father’s quest than the boy’s, especially as many of his initial discoveries perusing through books stacked on the stage do not exactly inspire the teenager.  How can a boy get too excited when he hears his ancestors were the victims of conquest and annihilation of such empires as the Incas and the Aztecs, not to mention the “great extermination” of Native Americans (from 26 million to 1.3 million after begin ‘discovered’ by Columbus, “the Donald Trump of the New World”)?  

John Leguizamo as Loretta Valázquez
But such dire, depressing facts about their ancestral roots are of course intermingled by this famed comedian with others that are more fun -- like the fact that Latins gave tomatoes for the Italian’s pasta, potatoes for Irish sustenance, and chocolate for “menstruating women.”  And in time, we and his son hear that Latinos have bravely fought and often been in commanding positions of every U.S. war, from the Revolutionary through Vietnam, including one Cuban-born Loretta Valázquez who masqueraded as a man in order to fight with the Confederacy in the Civil War.  Many of the heroes and perpetrators of this history make momentary appearances through Mr. Leguizamo’s sudden, often hilarious transformations, including the Indian-hating/fighting Andrew Jackson with tussled hair of white that comes from a generous dusting of chalk dust onto the actor’s wild mop of locks.

Latinos from throughout the Americas and their mostly white European and American conquerors are not the only folks to pop into Mr. Leguizamo’s stories.  Members of every ethnic group imaginable become the brunt of some joke and appear in exaggerated, often stereotyped voices, stances, moves, and even dances.  While any one shuffling, bowing, hunched characterization could be viewed as totally non-kosher and not-at-all-PC collectively they allow everyone in the audience to laugh at some point at him/herself and to remember, as is sung in the musical Avenue Q, “Everyone is a little bit racist.”

John Leguizamo is truly a master clown and storyteller.  His face twists and turns in every imaginable manner as he imparts in a variety of voices and accents tidbits about himself, his family, and his focused subject manner.  With the astute aid of his friend and director, Tony Taccone (also Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep), the pace is non-stop; the antics employed, inventive; and the laughter from the audience, close to continuous.  The show is full of X-rated (and sometimes, XXX-rated) language and mimes (including some very suggestive signing by a deaf uncle), but the rapidity of each occurrence and the tongue-in-cheek manner performed leaves little room for anyone to take offense.

The craziness of the history lesson is greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Alexander V. Nichols (who also designed the simple, but effective setting).  Swirling lights, great shadow plays, and sudden disco colors greatly support and enhance the fun and frolic of the show.  Emmanuel Hernandez has created choreography for this one-man’s show that allows him to take a few side journeys into nightclub-like acts that bring much applause from everyone.  James Ballen has consulted on sound; and Maggi Yule, on Mr. Leguizamo’s wardrobe; and both have done their jobs admirably.

In the end, John’s son finds his own hero and ensures both his graduation and his father’s pride.  We in turn do learn some Latin history as well as the truth of a well-known quote that is imparted in mechanical voice and with withered body parts by a visiting Stephen Hawking: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

Rating: 4 E

John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons continues through August 14, 2016 in Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

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