Actor-comedian John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons” is exactly what Berkeley needs: a politically incorrect (whatever that means) history lesson that ridicules anyone and everyone, ultimately telling a story about his own Latin heritage. There is such thing as truly offensive — and, with that, folks should be scolded, but more often than not those lines in comedy are blurred. With “Latin History,” that’s gleefully tossed out the window. Questionable? Maybe. Entertaining? Yes, on all levels.
The show is making its world premiere run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre prior to debuting Off Broadway at New York City’s Public Theater, which co-produced the one-man show. “Latin History” marks Leguizamo’s second show at the Berkeley Rep, where he previously workshopped 2010’s “Klass Klown,” the comedian’s pre-Broadway version of his fourth one-man show “Ghetto Klown.”
Now, Leguizamo has gone from “Klass Klown” to substitute teacher, walking out in classic “cool sub” fashion, dressed in sneakers and a three-piece suit — well, a vest, blazer and jeans. Reusable coffee mug in hand, Leguizamo “un-brainwashes” the Latinos and clarifies some historical details for everyone else. There are some easter eggs for Latinos, such as saying that Montezuma was a “pendejo,” but for the most part, the show’s history lesson is dumbed down enough for the rest of the paying morons. You won’t walk out feeling like you can ace an exam on Latin America, but the historical hysterics are enough to get you a passing grade.
The Colombian-born Leguizamo revolves the narrative of “Latin History for Morons” around his son, who was bullied at school. Meanwhile, the boy also has a middle school history project to complete, requiring him to research a Latin American hero — only he doesn’t know enough about his own heritage to get working on it. Here’s where he needs his dad’s help.
Really, it’s not just Leguizamo’s son who needs his help when it comes to Latin American history. Like his son, most Americans probably get their history from highly inaccurate, highly dramatized films such as “Apocalypto.” The Latino narrative often gets lost amid American classroom mainstays such as our can’t-believe-it-still-exists holiday devoted to Christopher Columbus, “the Donald Trump of the New World,” according to John Leguizamo.
With “Latin History,” the comedian turns that Eurocentric thinking on its head. With fast-talking precision, Leguizamo frees audiences of the brainwashing rubbish taught in traditional classrooms, utilizing the whole of the Peet’s Theatre stage in a frenzy. He hides behind the chalkboard as he plays a warrior, rolls on the floor in a battle reenactment and frantically flips through history books at his desk.
Aside from the history, Leguizamo teaches even the most touchy of political subjects to the audience. He touches on gay immunity in one bit, saying that because his brother is “really gay,” he can totally joke about gay people. It’s basically the equivalent of saying that because you have Black friends, you can make Black jokes. But Leguizamo has found a way to ridicule the oppressed in the walls of a theater — Berkeley theater at that. Perhaps more accurately, his comedy ridicules those who ridicule the oppressed. It’s an unpretentious social commentary that we seem to be lacking nowadays.
Much of the show’s laughs come from playing up the offensiveness, an often-seen Leguizamo tactic. Throughout the show, he performs many otherwise overtly offensive impressions: Gandhi, Stephen Hawking, his Jewish wife, his deaf uncle. A lively jig is code for Irish and several intensely caricaturized Native American tribal dances are showstoppers. If some sidewalk entertainer performed such impressions, they’d promptly be spit on. The difference with Leguizamo — aside from him already being a star — is that he can smartly transition from “dummy performing derogatory bits” to “father desperately attempting to show his son that his heritage is more than what society makes it out to be.”
Amid the ridiculousness, the show actually is quite touching. The emotional pull of the underlying father-son relationship helps to ease off some of the politically incorrect comedy, and Leguizamo ultimately summons up questions of heritage and what it means to be a hero. In turn, the show wraps up the complex, weighty problems of our nation in an uproarious 90 minutes.
In an age in which we “morons” could all use a history lesson, Leguizamo dumbs it all down for us, bringing the story of his heritage to a human level, offensiveness and all.