Are you a white liberal suffering from crippling anxiety about the toxic political climate in America? If so, John Leguizamo has a bit of advice for you:
“Just hang out with a Latin person,” he says, a sly grin spreading across his face. “We’ve experienced this forever.”
Leguizamo is sitting on the couch in his dressing room backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, where his one-man show “Latin History for Morons” provides a rapid-fire, 110-minute comedic lesson in the vital contributions Latinx people have made to American culture, and the insidious way those contributions have been omitted from the history books.
The show staged its world premiere in 2016 at Berkeley Repertory and debuted off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theater in 2017, just two months after President Trump was inaugurated. Thirty months later, Leguizamo says the show has taken on added significance because of the Trump administration’s battle at the border, the precipitous rise in hate crimes targeting Latinx residents, including the August shooting in El Paso that killed 22, and Trump’s insistence that members of a white supremacist march contained some very “fine people.”
Tony Taccone, who has directed “Latin History for Morons” since the beginning, says the cultural fracture has served as an impetus for Leguizamo to sharpen his act.
“The fact that there was an opposition that became so formidable and clear and aggressive in the last few years has challenged John to get more sophisticated and emboldened,” Taccone says. “He’s stepped into the public arena in a more provocative and daring way.”
At first that meant throwing in multiple references to fresh Trumpian outrages, but those outrages grew so commonplace as to cause chronic fatigue. Ultimately, Leguizamo did away with some of those references. The trick became not bending his show to target Trump.
“There were a lot more attacks on Trump toward the end of the show, and I scaled back on that because I don’t want to make it about him,” Leguizamo says.
That’s not to say he doesn’t still salt in references to Trump, particularly infamous Trump utterances like the one about Mexican immigrants being criminals and rapists. Leguizamo would just rather focus on redemption — the small ways we can effect change for a better, more egalitarian world.
He sees Trump and the Trumpian era as a means to an end. A necessary adjustment in the metaphorical physiology of America.
“Trump is like a huge enema for the country,” Leguizamo jokes. “He’s flushing out all the crap, and I gotta believe that we’re gonna come out of it on the other side cleaner, thinner and with brighter complexions.”
In the meantime, Leguizamo wants his audiences, particularly his Latinx audiences, to focus their energy on arming themselves with knowledge.
If Americans knew, for example, that 10,000 “unknown Latino patriots” fought in the American Revolution, and that an additional 20,000 fought in the Civil War — if they knew that those same soldiers were among the most decorated minorities in those wars, and in every other war America has fought, they wouldn’t “feel so free to treat us the way they are treating us,” Leguizamo says.
The history of the Aztecs, the Incas and the Native Americans, with their complex cultures, languages and artistic contributions, serve as a natural antidote to all the things being done and said by the Trump administration, he says. The fact that these cultures faced eradication, and that somehow Latinx people still rose up to give humanity “some of the sexiest dance moves the world has ever seen,” is a testament to their indomitable spirit.
That similar threads of DNA brought about the majesty of Montezuma and the majestic flow of Cardi B is a notion worth celebrating in Leguizamo’s stage show, and his exuberance is contagious.
The air had an electric charge during a recent performance at the Ahmanson, with the audience left howling and exasperated in equal measures as Leguizamo sprinted from thought to thought and fact to fact, swiveling his hips with well-oiled acumen, donning slapdash costumes and invoking a stunning variety of intentionally ridiculous stereotypes.
The backbone of his act, and the genesis for the show, is Leguizamo’s quest to discover Latin heroes for his son, who has been the target of racist bullying at school.
“This whole process of ‘Latin History’ is watching him emerge as a person who could articulate for a couple of generations of people what their conflicts are surrounding Latin identity,” Taccone says.
It also doesn’t take a Latin person to understand those conflicts. Leguizamo tasks himself with spreading as much information as he can to as many different groups of people as possible to eradicate what he described as “cultural apartheid,” the relative invisibility of Latinx people and their stories in entertainment and media.
He says he has noticed people are shouldering his mission by sharing Latinx history and facts via social media.
“It’s really important to know that Latin people helped build America,” Leguizamo says. “We didn’t just get here, we’re not just crossing the border now.”
Leguizamo, 55, was born in Bogota, Colombia. His family emigrated to New York City and settled in Queens when he was 4. He says he developed his sense of humor as a shield against the racism he encountered in his neighborhood.
He knows he has achieved the kind of fame and security that has eluded many Latinx strivers, and that contributes to the sense of urgency in his message of inclusion.
Despite his sardonic smile, he is an optimist at heart. He sees hope in the influx of Latinx people on the national political stage, particularly in his home state, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a patron saint of liberal reform and a role model for young Latinx people.
He also gains strength from his audience — the sea of white, Asian, black and brown faces that look up at him every night.
“It’s beautiful. It warms my heart,” he says. “It’s America.”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20. (Check for exceptions.)
Tickets: $35-$155 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission)
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