Fatherhood has transformed John Leguizamo, whose latest solo show, “Latin History for Morons,” has him hitting the history books to shore up his son’s pride in their Latino heritage.
Once a wiry presence who conjured a melting pot of characters with the fearless agility of a New York kid running through subway cars, he hasn’t lost his hip-hop comic rhythm, but he’s older, thicker and not ashamed to admit that he sees a therapist. He’ll always be full of mischief, but his rowdy humor is now suffused with paternal worry and tenderness.
Standing on the Ahmanson Theatre stage, which has been deftly turned into a makeshift classroom by Tony-winning scenic designer Rachel Hauck, Leguizamo bears a striking resemblance to Gabe Kotter, the wisecracking high school teacher played by Gabe Kaplan in the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Like Kotter, Leguizamo understands teaching as a form of stand-up, but his pedagogy is more unruly. School is in session and the class clown has commandeered the lectern.
The curriculum Leguizamo has designed revolves around all that is missing from his son’s middle-school understanding of Latino history — the heroes, the leaders and, yes, the genocidal casualties who have been scrupulously omitted from the old American history textbooks. He’s disturbed to see his boy taking the side of the slaughtering cowboys in a western video game when, as he gently points out, Latinos like him and his son have significant Native American ancestry.
More upsetting is the way his son is being bullied and subjected to ethnic slurs at the fancy private school that was supposed to protect him from the “racial rite of passage” Leguizamo suffered when he was young. (Dad is particularly annoyed that one of the insults doesn’t even fit the Latino background of his son, who happens to also be half Jewish.) When one obnoxious rich kid touts that he has Civil War generals in his family history, Leguizamo’s boy feels he has nothing to say in his own defense.
This lack of pride inspires Leguizamo’s to pick up Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” in which he learns of the many inventions and contributions Latinos have made to society as well as some of the horrors European conquerors unleashed on the Native population. Yet even after all the germs and genocide, Leguizamo remarks in a characteristic zingy aside that includes some smooth moves, “we pay you back with some of the sexiest dances the world has ever known. Tango, cumbia, cha-cha-cha, mambo, samba.”
I first saw an early incarnation of “Latin History for Morons” at Berkeley Rep in the summer of 2016. The show, which had a brief run on Broadway after a stop at the Public Theater, has become sharper. The comedy still traffics awkwardly in stereotypes, but Leguizamo’s brashness is back. The strut, the salaciousness and the sneaky smile are in full wattage in a production that has been shepherded with great care by director Tony Taccone.
Leguizamo’s past solo work has similarly evolved through workshops and tryouts, but the political climate has changed perhaps even more than the writing. Donald Trump, who launched his candidacy at New York’s Trump Tower with an attack on Mexicans, is now president. Trump doesn’t figure prominently, but he’s the racist elephant in the room, the embodiment of the ignorance and bigotry Leguizamo is trying to correct.
The show is pitched, however, not to the White House but to the audience. We’re the “morons” he’s putting through this crash course he’s assembling on the fly to rescue his son from the feelings of inferiority that naturally arise when one’s history has been rendered invisible.
The syllabus, it must be said, remains unwieldy. Leguizamo’s historical tour is meant to be dizzying, but the narrative packaging is loose and the effect rambling. The whole lesson plan on the Aztecs is a blur, and if the after-show quiz that Leguizano threatens were to contain too many questions on the Cortez and Moctezuma section, a great many of us would fail after his hyperactive recap.
Leguizamo, whose previous Broadway shows (“Ghetto Klown,” “Sexaholix” and “Freak”) certainly helped in getting him a special Tony Award for “Latin History for Morons” last year, is at his most incisive in his footnote commentary. Why, he can’t help wondering, is the art of Latino people called “folk art” and European art called “fine art” when all modern art “is just our ‘folk’ art gentrified”? Don’t get him started, he warns, on the topic of children in cages, but he wants us to understand that what’s happening at the border is part of a cyclical history of immigrants being denigrated and denied rights in the U.S.
If the father-son story hits the same note once too often, Leguizamo’s embrace of his pedagogic failure glows with affection. Alternately referring to his son as “buddy” and “honey,” he teaches not only us but also himself that the root of education is a loving, two-way connection.
After learning that Latinos have shed blood in every American war, Leguizamo storms in protest, “We’re so American it hurts.” In the ongoing battle against bias and ignorance, he deserves a comic medal of valor for his indefatigable verve alone.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $35-$155 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)