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The boldest thing about John Leguizamo's 'Latin History for Morons' is its title

The boldest thing about John Leguizamo's 'Latin History for Morons' is its title
John Leguizamo offers his remedial class on culture in "Latin History for Morons," which is having its world premiere in Berkeley. (Kevin Berne / Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Class is now in session at Berkeley Rep, where performer John Leguizamo is trying to "reboot" our knowledge of his people in "Latin History for Morons."

The remedial nature of this one-man comic seminar might suggest that he has designed this curriculum for a certain presidential candidate who can't resist tweeting (with multiple exclamation marks) his politically incorrect views. But current politics interests this class cutup less than enduring cultural patterns

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Yes, he does say, in a riff about his uneasiness with Thanksgiving, that Christopher Columbus is like the Donald Trump of the New World. And he pointedly turns the rhetoric of anti-immigrant zealots who divide Latinos into crooks, killers, rapists and ex-cons against the white European rabble that Horace Greeley and others encouraged to "go West" during America's expansionist days.

But this show, which had a workshop production earlier this year at La Jolla Playhouse and is now receiving its world premiere in a production directed by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, was spurred by something more personal. Leguizamo's own ignorance rankled him.

Why does he know so little about the contribution of Latinos to his nation? Why isn't he able to boast more about his Colombian and Puerto Rican heritage?

These questions arise when his son, bullied at his middle school and in danger of flunking history, needs help with a research project on the subject of heroes. The kid who has been tormenting his son keeps touting his family's lineage that stretches back to the Civil War battlefield.

Who are the Latino military icons that Leguizamo can introduce to his son to instill in him a sense of pride in his roots? To answer this, Leguizamo has to hit the books, schooling himself on what the school system conspicuously failed to address when he was a youth.

As the titles of some of Leguizamo's solo shows ("Freak," "Sexaholix … a Love Story" and "Ghetto Klown") might indicate, he was never what you'd call the Poindexter type. Misbehavior at school propelled him into acting. But now it's time for him to get professorial.

Adopting a look that is reminiscent of the funnyman teacher with the soft heart on the '70s sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter," Leguizamo is determined to fire up his son with knowledge. He stands before a blackboard and occasionally scribbles down key points, but storytelling is his preferred mode of teaching.

He tries to fill his lesson plan with the wisdom of family members. One uncle asks him to imagine the world without the Latino contributions of tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate and weed, but he knows comestibles aren't going to impress an 8th grader, and he'd rather avoid anything illegal at this point.

Relishing his own "mongrel" background, Leguizamo claims Native American history as part of his own, noting the large percentage of "Indian" in the multicultural background of most Latinos. He regales his son with stories about the Taínos, the Incas and the Aztecs, but his cockamamie tales fail to capture his kid's imagination.

Leguizamo's pedagogy is admittedly fuzzy. His identification flits between the sexually rapacious colonizer and their colonized victims. Political lines are conveniently drawn, and it's hard to reconcile his satire of hate and hypocrisy with routines that indulge so freely in silly stereotypes.

Comics deserve much latitude when lampooning, but the gay jokes Leguizamo resorts to are just so stale. And though a few found his imitation of Stephen Hawking's manner of speech funny, I'm sure I wasn't the only one who cringed.

Leguizamo sets himself up as the well-meaning but cartoonishly inept teacher, but it's a missed opportunity that the history he relates doesn't come into sharper focus. I couldn't help noticing how little I was learning in "Latin History for Morons."

The show's most valuable lesson stems from the trouble Leguizamo's son has with his father's review of all this Latino history. He wants to be on the side of the victors, not the defeated. Harassed at school, he longs for stories that will prop him up. Tales of civilizations that were wiped out just depress him further.

But there's something winning in the way Leguizamo refuses to give up on helping his son. The sweetness of his paternal concern is more bolstering than any impressive fact his research might unearth.

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"Latin History for Morons" hasn't yet come into focus. The show lacks the wildness of Leguizamo's earlier solo offerings that mined his amusingly checkered past for material.

The role of teacher may be having a dampening effect. The few dance moves he pulls out seem tame, and his political humor isn't half as biting as what you'd find on Twitter these days.

Dad's old ribald insouciance hasn't been extinguished, but it has the nostalgic quality of a retired general recalling former battles. As a performer, Leguizamo seems to be still settling into a new maturity.

The fatherly tenderness is welcome, and there's no denying the need for an educational intervention of some kind given the level of public discourse in this disheartening election season.

But the show, which is a co-production with New York's Public Theater, cries out for more brashness and concentrated vigor. The boldest thing about "Latin History for Morons" right now is its title.

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