Veteran comedian and performer John Leguizamo is back at Berkeley Rep this summer performing a world premiere of his latest one-man show, a comical history class on Latin America titled Latin History for Morons that may prove to be a workshop/trial run for piece he'll bring to New York. Leguizamo is no stranger to being alone on a stage, either doing standup or in his original solo pieces on Broadway 1998's Freak, 2001's Sexaholix...a Love Story, and 2010's Ghetto Klown, which he workshopped with Berkeley Rep's artistic director Tony Taccone and performed first in Berkeley under the title Klass Klown. Taccone workshopped and directed the new piece as well, which feels like a work in progress though it is filled with dozens of hilarious moments with signature, raunchy touches of Leguizamo comedy peppered throughout.
Latin History for Morons, which Leguizamo has been developing over the last year at Berkeley Rep's incubator The Ground Floor, appears to have grown out of a desire to actually know some facts about Latino history for himself. He says in an interview with the dramaturg that he'd been amassing research and facts to include for years before he happened upon the Ground Floor and decided it was the perfect environment in which to develop this into a piece he could perform.
As a performer, Leguizamo still has much of the manic, hyper-sexual, spitfire delivery he became known for in pieces like Sexaholix and earlier in movies like To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. But now he's a twice married dad, with two kids in their tween/teen years, and age has mellowed and softened him a bit without taking away any of the magnetism or intense command of the stage that have brought him fame. He spends much of the new piece in imagined conversations with his son, whom he refers to alternately as "honey" and "buddy" and whose cartoonish, cracking voice he provides an impersonation of, and for whom he's trying to find a Latino hero from history for a middle school graduation project.
After the imagined son character is repeatedly confronted by a white bully who talks about being descended from a line of cops and a Civil War general, Leguizamo strains to say who he's descended from, apart from his Colombian parents and a grandfather he claims was of Puerto Rican descent he's long claimed half Puerto Rican heritage, and is an ambassador at New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade, until his father told a New York paper in 2011 that both he and Leguizamo's mom are from Colombia, where Leguizamo was born.
Leguizamo says in the new interview, "I grew up in New York with every Latin group in the world as my friends, as my neighbors. And every other white group, black group, Asian group I grew up with everybody. And you had to figure out who you were and how you belong as a whole. So I felt very connected to all my Latin groups, and they empowered me in so many ways... [and] I always felt very connected to Native Americans, especially as I got older."
Opening the show, Leguizamo drops the fact that Latino people are genetically, on average, 40 percent Native American, and he goes on to tell the tales of the Tainos of Puerto Rico, the Aztecs of Mexico, and the Incas of South America launching into native dances to introduce each one all of whom were all but wiped out, and their cultures subsumed, by invading conquistadors from Spain. He groups Columbus, who was technically Italian, in with them, and shows him no mercy in describing the rape of the Americas over hundreds of years, the Spanish conquistadors and eventual colonists systematically having sex with, and impregnating, native women and black slaves over centuries to create the multi-ethnic mix we now call Latino.
He's at his natural best telling these war stories of his ancestors, especially the tale of Montezuma being murdered by the Spanish invader Cortés in 1520 which in Leguizamo's telling paints Montezuma as gay, taken with Cortés after being taken captive, and ultimately stabbed in the dick after what may have been some sexual come-on or tryst. This is not part of the official history I could find, but I guess he read it somewhere?
In the evolution of Latin History for Morons, Leguizamo decided he needed to give structure to the piece by bringing in personal stories, introducing his wife and kids, and creating the story about his son's school project. He also uses his own therapist, whom he impersonates as sounding exactly like Garrison Keillor, as a device to discuss his own anxiety at failing his son, and getting over his "ghetto rage" and this works probably the least well, and feels mostly like a chance for him to imitate Garrison Keillor for laughs. Also, a few of the later inserted conversations with his son feel forced and unnecessary.
Fans of Leguizamo's work, and especially Spanish speakers and those who grew up Latino without much knowledge of this history, will undoubtedly love the piece, and Leguizamo was met with a big standing ovation on opening night Wednesday.
No doubt, though, this is a piece that is going to improve with time, and right now it has a few kinks that need ironing out.
'John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons' plays through August 14. Find tickets here and remember if you're under 30 you can get half-price if you call.