Get Down and Dirty with John Leguizamo
by Benjamin K. Sloan
I came up from LA a couple of weeks ago looking for a place to live, as I enter my junior year at Cal. I’m going to major in English, History, and Theater—without much experience in Theater, at all. And what did I discover in Berkeley? “Latin History for Morons,” up from the La Jolla Playhouse and on its way to New York’s Public Theater.
It doesn’t take long for Leguizamo to launch into his fiery rhetoric as he prances, dances, and jigs around stage in a casually professorial outfit—jacket, checkered vest, loose tie, and Chuck Taylors. With animated pelvic thrusting, mid-coital shrieks, and an endless supply of below the belt gags throughout, you will most definitely get your daily dose of deviance.
By the end of this 90-minute, one-man spectacle the maniacal John Leguizamo has destroyed our conventional ideas about the noble white man, the John Wayne type of hero, who rides in on a horse. No more chiseled jaw Anglo, with his sword raised high for all to praise and cheer! Leguizamo demystifies that Anglo myth. Our 21st century Captain American hero, with cut biceps and washboard abs, takes a devastating shot to his superiority complex.
Leguizamo’s thesis is as follows: being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean being a winner, but being a hero entails fighting for your beliefs and cultural dignity. Oh, and guess what, it’s our fault for swallowing the lies. Pointing the finger at someone and calling them out is not so easy to do: how does J.L. get away with it?
DIRTY HUMOR. Leguizamo wraps the Berkeley educated, hyper-politically correct audience around his little finger by using street talk, down and dirty. Leguizamo speaks for the underbelly-of-America, for guilty pleasures, and obscene lingo. He’s the Seinfeld for Everyman. Everyone—Latino, Black, Asian, African, Anglo, European, gay, straight or transgender can relate to earthy Leguizamo’s good old-fashioned New York street talk! His outrageous, everyday humor acts like a socially lubricating drink at your last social gathering—he sets us loose! We see the whole Anglo-Latino-American picture from his point of view—and we wake up! We are no longer “morons.” Thanks, John.
Some might say that Leguizamo lacks a complex plot or stimulating educational information, but that is exactly what makes his play so effective. His agenda does not have to be complicated by cryptic symbolism or sub-textual irony.
The plotline is simple: his son needs to complete a report for his New York City school history class. The boy is having difficulty finding a “hero” from his Latin cultural heritage who fits the bill. Son and father embark on a journey. Leguizamo plays the boy as timid and shaky like a small dog, struggling to survive in a harsh pre-pubescent world ruled by bigoted white bullies. While the boy searches for a hero, the dutiful father, agonizes over both his own shortcomings as a role model and the elusive, seemingly non-existent Latin hero!
In an inspired moment, Leguizamo gives his son three rules for a hero, using circles and lines symbols on his academic blackboard:
- Don’t be a pussy (as he draws a vagina, reminiscent of an artichoke),
- Don’t be an ass (as he draws a circle), and
- Don’t be a dick (a line).
Afterward, he says: “Oh, and this” – pointing to the dick—“goes in here”—indicating the vagina, “and sometimes here”—in reference to the butt. Big laughter from the Berkeley audience. And then he says, “…and that’s sex-ed for you,” igniting barrels of laughter from the crowd.
As a veteran performer, his timing is perfect, as he plays with the appreciative audience. Haphazardly, he creates a simple conversation instead of a lecture. By bringing gleeful obscenities into almost everything he says, he puts us all on the same level. His street- smart and quick-witted delivery works three ways:
- He is absolutely hilarious, which makes his humor accessible to many types of audiences.
- He makes his rhetoric just as applicable to the common man as it is to the intellectual. 3. He breaks down our politically correctness, showing us that we CAN laugh at the absurdity of the labels that drive US life.
He leads us all, fellow morons, to realize that Latin Americans have been historically misunderstood and disregarded in favor of fancified Anglo heroes, like Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. It is obvious that we all need to wake the hell up and pull down the white veil hat has covered our ethnocentric bubble for far too long.
Written & Performed by John Leguizamo.
Directed by Tony Taccone, at Berkeley Rep.
Dance Choreography: Emmanuel Hernandez. Scenic & Lighting Design: Alexander V. Nichols. Costume Consultant: Maggi Yule. Sound Consultant: James Ballen. Stage Manager: Kathy Rose.
“John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons” plays through August 14, 2016 at Berkeley Repertory Theater.