The National Theater in the nation’s capital is located on Pennsylvania Avenue – as is Donald Trump’s White House. Still, during John Leguizamo’s three Washington performances of Latin History for Morons, there the similarity ends.
Far more than an attack on Trump’s benighted “Build the Wall” immigration policies, however, Leguizamo’s play fresh from a Tony-nominated Broadway run is a broadside taking down anyone since Columbus who’s used culture, religion or garden-variety white supremacy to pretend Latin people didn’t exist. No, not merely exist. It’s a multi-faceted bombardment (complete with a syllabus of books in the program for later reading) aimed at establishing the Latin-flavored native American culture as the equal of any that ever existed.
And since Leguizamo is an actor, voice artist, stand-up comedian, producer, playwright and screenwriter of New York Puerto Rican descent, it’s hard to think of anybody better suited for touching torch to fuse.
Latin History is another in this gifted performer’s series of one-man stage shows, its simple premise that his eighth-grade son is struggling at his ritzy private school in Los Angeles. After talking to the “headmaster” and then to the lad at his Jewish American wife’s insistence, Leguizamo decides the problem is that no teacher or textbook features Latin heroes – or even gives the slightest acknowledgement that Latin people did great things before or contributed great things to the history of these United States. A research quest ensues.
Yes, the show involves a blackboard and many stacks of books strewn around the stage, but mostly what it involves is John Leguizamo. By putting on (and taking off) articles of clothing and pushing his hair this way and that, he becomes dozens of important and semi-known characters from Latin history, plus his own wife, son and daughter and his immigrant parents and extended family in the New York City ghetto. Men, women and children – he portrays them all with spot-on brilliance, making the switch instantly before our eyes. Considering all this, it’s not surprising he portrays his own therapist as well.
The goal of the actor’s year-plus search is finding his son at least one “hero” who is Latin, instead of the lily-white Europeans he is presented every time the education system exhales. What he finds is a few hundred million of them.
Out the window, of course, go the time-tested podium-toppers of the traditional U.S. narrative, starting with Columbus, who gets a whole day to himself each year, Leguizamo laments. Also gone are Spaniards like Cortes and Pizarro, who talked about their Catholic faith while seeking and stealing the natives’ mountains of gold. Over time, the peaceful Taino of the Caribbean (whom Leguizamo embraces as a main strand of his ancestry), the Aztecs of Mexico and the Inca of Peru disappear from the world stage as well, leaving the gold-grabbing, girl-and-boy raping, STD-spreading white men from Europe to pen their epitaph. Savages who needed saving, even though it usually meant killing them for their own good, the conquerors would write.
If any of this sounds the least bit bookish, it’s not. Leguizamo is well-tuned to his audience, which giggles, guffaws and often cheers through his diatribes, whether he’s busy being a very effeminate Montezuma, a Brooklyn goombah Columbus or a timelessly redneck Andrew Jackson clearing the growing nation of “Indians” who had the misfortune of being in his way. Scenes with his wife and kids today, with his parents back in the ghetto or with figures from ancient history all toss and tumble together like clothes in a dryer set on maximum heat.
There are certainly digs at Trump, including a brilliant bit on how the Spaniards destroyed the more powerful Inca by teaching them to hate and distrust each other (explaining this phenomenon as Sigmund Freud, no less). Yet the story and message of Leguizamo’s show would be powerful and true if there were no Trump at all. The stereotypes and cheapening of human life, especially by whites in America over browns and blacks, was written into our national myths from the very beginning.
Never and nowhere else in human history, Leguizamo asserts near the end of his remarkable, convincing, totally x-rated evening, has any single group been as beaten and battered and suppressed and devalued and slaughtered as the native Latin people of the Americas. Yet in a single breath, he fills in the final blank in a way we can ponder for the rest of our lives: “We’re still here.”