It’s been three years since “Latin History for Morons” made its debut at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And even after all that time, a Special Tony Award and a Netflix special, John Leguizamo’s oxymoronically raucous and incisive one-man play is still best experienced live. Bay Area audiences had such an opportunity Friday night when the show’s national tour made a stop at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. While Leguizamo’s own antics and asides barely deviated from the 2018 Broadway rendition, the Oakland audience’s endless enthusiasm, as well as Leguizamo’s own crowd-riffing charisma, elevated the show’s rapid-fire syllabus into a masterclass.
School’s out in the United States, and for Leguizamo, that’s the whole problem. Striding on stage in a vaguely professorial get-up with a tweed jacket and a button-up — both of which he converts into comic-relief costumes as the show goes on — he presents a vision of the American educational system as out of resources, out of ideas and out of “f”s to give about minority students. A rewound scene to Leguizamo’s own childhood education hits especially hard when his history teacher’s racist slurs are shown to be echoed, a generation later, in the mouths of his son’s bullies.
Leguizamo, outraged and beleaguered, thus embarks on a personal quest of educational reform. Diving into research, he looks to undo his own childhood misinformation regarding Latin history and to supply his son with a worthy Latin hero to admire and emulate. The result is a show that is partly a historical crash course, partly ethnography and partly parental therapy as Leguizamo flails, finesses and, in his son’s words, “heroically fail(s)” in his avowed mission, but succeeds in another.
As with his past resume of work — his feverish appearances in “Ghetto Klown” and 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” come to mind — Leguizamo threw himself into this project with practiced panache. He was alternately breathless and screaming, smearing chalk into his hair to imitate the seventh president and flinging himself across the stage in mock-intimations of Incan throne-bearers. “I’m getting too old for this s—, I could have tore something,” he groaned after a particularly physical set of choreography, and yet was up and dancing again within the span of a few lines.
In contrast to the Netflix recording’s muted applause, the Oakland audience whooped at Leguizamo’s indefatigable efforts, offering each punchline and dance number a hero’s reception. Many mouthed along to the book titles he cited throughout the routine, already familiar with the material but still wanting to hear it spoken aloud. In response to an impassioned speech against Latin histories being relegated to the realm of niche, one audience member yelled: “Preach it!” As Leguizamo proclaimed and reclaimed his status as an intellectual — “So now I’m a self-professed ghetto scholar, holla” — he let out a low coqui whistle. The sound carried across the theater, receiving answering whistles from all around in a sublime moment of strident solidarity.
That being said, certain aspects of the show’s teachings, in their humorous bent, strained to be pedagogically effective. The class would have been more focused, perhaps, were there slightly fewer caricatures mixed in alongside the historical impersonations. The impression of Montezuma as a cartoonish crop-top-sporting gay man, in particular, overstayed its welcome by precisely one dance number, and Leguizamo’s subsequent justification that his brother is gay and had given him license to use the bit rang hollow in a lecture that had otherwise landed its marks and fulfilled its inclusive thesis.
Still, beyond and by way of breakneck dramatics, Leguizamo’s political mission rings out. His goal is one of Latinx affirmation, a provocation of consciousness that stems from at last being in on the joke rather than being at the expense of one.
The most powerful moments of the show were thusly received, not just through laughs, though they were frequent, but also through applause and acknowledgment, through the knowing nods that bobbed across the audience. When Leguizamo gave his final bow, the theater surged up into a standing ovation, the audience members’ energy manifesting as a form of catharsis and realization of Leguizamo’s mission — a willingness to learn and to act.
Contact Anna Ho at [email protected].