Latin History for Morons
At the Cadillac Palace
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –For about three decades actor-comedian John Leguizamo has explored the Latino experience in the United States through a series of one-man shows that combine stand-up comedy with satire and social criticism. The shows have edgy names like “Mambo Mouth,” “Spic-o-Rama,” “Freak,” “Sexaholic,” and ”Ghetto Klown.” They are usually autobiographical, taking as their texts Leguizamo’s dysfunctional family life in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City.
“Latin History for Morons” premiered in a successful limited run in New York City in 2017 and Chicago occupies an unfortunately brief stop on a current extensive cross country tour. The production should have enough appeal to merit more than six performances, but local audiences will have to make do.
This show expands Leguizamo’s previous subject matter. In “Latin History for Morons” he is reviewing thousands of years of Latino history, roaming the stage at the Cadillac Palace Theatre for 110 uninterrupted minutes as the star tries to educate the audience (the “Morons” of the title) about the injustices and indignities his people have suffered in the New World over the centuries.
Leguizamo is American born with his roots in Colombia. He plays himself as narrator and also metamorphoses into pinpoint impersonations of a wild variety of characters. Leguizamo mixes Spanish with his English, but the spectator doesn’t need to be bilingual to catch the performer’s meaning.
The trigger for the current show is the bullying Leguizamo’s 12 year old son endured at school from non Latinos who mocked his Latino ethnicity. In his researches, Leguizamo discovered that the Latino experience in America has always been blend of racial stereotypes and invisibility. He learns that school textbooks typically survey American history with nary a mention of Latino contributions to the history of this country and he aggressively tries to set the record straight.
The show is structured as a continuous flow. It starts off with Leguizamo’s recounting the greatness of pre-Colombian empires like the Aztec, Inca, and Maya—civilizations that he points out rank among the greatest in world history. He is angered to discover that the achievements of these mighty societies, each destroyed by European invaders, find no mention in his son’s textbooks.
Leguizamo tries to prove that his Latino heritage is awash in achievements that should make his son proud and not ashamed and defensive. Leguizamo concisely surveys thousands of years early Latino history, and doesn’t hesitate to point out contemporary insults to the Latino heritage under the administration of the current president of the United States.
Leguizamo cites statistics combined with multiple examples of Latino men and women who contributed to building and defending this country, accomplishments ignored by generations of abuse, ignorance, and dismissal. The emphasis is on humor, much of it satirical or tinged in bitterness, but Leguizamo doesn’t badger the audience or turn the evening into an anger-fueled screed, no matter what the historical record reveals. Indeed, in taking the comic road, Leguizamo sometimes lumbers his show with nightclub shtick that, at least in my opinion, tended to occasionally trivialize his cause. But the audience, very pro Leguizamo from his first appearance on stage, loved it all, just as they reacted with cascades of laughter to his profanity-laced style.
Leguizamo grew serious near the end of the evening as he reflected on the neglect and misunderstanding Latinos have endured, often with quiet acceptance. In those moments the large crowd suddenly turned quiet. The show became more than a skilled actor catering to a partisan crowd. Leguizamo spoke with sadness and anger but also with hope that the Latino community might yet get its cumulative voice heard. His delivery demanded that attention be paid.
Leguizamo has a genius for connecting with an audience. Not many performers could singled-handedly dominate a large theater like the Cadillac Palace. He wrote the show and his blend of monologues and quick vignettes has a natural flow, whether he is talking, dancing, or manically moving across the stage. Tony Taccone gets director credit but it’s impossible to identify his role in the production. The entire evening seemed to emerge from Leguizamo’s high energy personality and theatrical and dramatic versatility. He has no problem fluidly metamorphosing into characters like a Southern bigot, a pompous psychiatrist, President Andrew Jackson, and a confused and fearful adolescent.
Leguizamo works within an elaborately cluttered set designed by Rachel Hauck that provides props Leguizamo utilizes effectively throughout the action. The main prop is a large reversible blackboard the star uses as his chief visual aid. Alexander Nichols designed the lighting with its atmospheric changes and Bray Poor is responsible for the original music and the occasional sudden sound effects, like a bedroom door Leguizamo’s off stage son slams to exclude his father from his anxiety-filled world.
“Latin History for Morons” is intended as a learning experience, though Leguizamo clearly was preaching to a vociferously sympathetic choir, cheering his demands that the Latino experience in America receive proper recognition, understanding, and respect. This show obviously means much to the actor and he utilizes his remarkable breadth of acting skills to drive home his points, but I could have tightened the material to pare away some of the easier laughs.
I’m not sure how much of an impact the show’s righteous indignation will have on a non Latino audience, though Leguizamo’s presentation should give every thinking spectator much to ponder. Even if “Latin History for Morons” doesn’t have a lasting effect on its audience, it unquestionably can be admired as another triumph in a unique performing career.
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“Latin History for Morons” runs through November 3 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street. Performances are 7:30 p.m. through Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $90. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com October 2019
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