The Pioneer

The Pioneer

Actor John Leguizamo teaches Latin History to “Morons”

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

April G. Ancheta,
Contributor

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John Leguizamo’s new solo performance at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on July 22 was a 90-minute show with no intermission. In “Latin History for Morons,” the 52-year-old award-winning actor, comedian and playwright provided present-day commentary with contrasting scenes of historical Latino moments.

“We got a lot of work to do tonight because I gotta reboot you on the way you think of Latin people,” Leguizamo said as he began the show. “Latin History for Morons” will continue to run until August 14, every day except Mondays and Tuesdays.

Throughout the performance, Leguizamo shone a light on Taino — Native Indians from North and South America — Inca and Aztec civilizations, and discussed Latin heroes dating back to the Revolutionary War. He wove historical research in with the story of a father desperate to help his son with a bullying situation.

Leguizamo aimed to make clear to audiences how Latin roots have played a major role in developing the Americas as they look today. Leguizamo explained that Latin roots extended back to a time long before Conquistadors set foot on South American land. Through extensive research to create his characters, he is attempting to retell Latin history in a way it has not been told before.

One of these characters is Loreta Janeta Velaquez — a woman who dressed like a male soldier to fight in the Civil War. A collaboration of lights projected on stage and sound effects of ammunition helped tell her story. Although Leguizamo was the only actor on stage, he would play two characters while he used himself as a narrator. During the play, Leguizamo used his entire body to demonstrate the battlefield. His whole-body way of storytelling was full of energy; he duck and dove behind the blackboard as it became a trench. Lights flashed and dimmed as the sound of rifles faded. Leguizamo was dedicated to find Latin heroes in history books to show his son how Latinos played a role in history.

It feels like it’s just you, a few close friends and Leguizamo in a single room. He performs on a “thrust” style stage, where audience members are seated to the left side, right side and directly in front of the stage. At the very center of the audience is a group considered “head of the class;” these audience members paid extra to sit on small benches seated directly beneath the stage. It’s also an open invitation for the teacher, Mr. Leguizamo, to call on them. To the bottom left corner and bottom right corner of the stage, there are milk crates filled with textbooks.

Before Leguizamo walks on stage, the audience sees a large table with textbooks and a blank blackboard similar to a classroom. Leguizamo animated his story with heartfelt, personable and colorful characters. It’s easy to forget that there is one person on stage yet the audience meets an anxious father, a tired wife, a worried son, a disconnected daughter and even a opportunistic therapist. Leguizamo uses a range of different voices to play these characters with very few props.

He dusted chalk from the blackboard onto his hair to appear older or he used his hand gesture and a well-timed roll of his eyes to impersonate a teenage girl wearing headphones. When he brought Latino ancestors to the stage, he reached into a box and pulled out a wig or a helmet to play a soldier in the Civil War. One minute, Leguizamo is lying on the ground as a wounded soldier then the next minute he has propped himself on his feet to yell like a lieutenant.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.6 percent of Alameda County identified as Latino or Hispanic as of July 2015. According to the Hayward Unified School District website, out of the 20,966 K-12 students enrolled with HUSD, 13,151 students identify as Latino or Hispanic. That’s 63 percent of the HUSD student body. Leguizamo’s play and message to educate students of unknown Latino history is more relevant with a growing Hispanic and Latino student body.

During a video for BerkeleyRep.com, Leguizamo said that 32 percent of Latinos drop out of high school. “I totally understand why,” he said. “I know what that feeling was. I wanted to drop out of high school because you never see yourself represented anywhere. How do you project yourself into the future or into any level of power or success, if you don’t learn about anybody that looks like you or is like you?”

Much of “Latin History for Morons” was developed in the East Bay at the Berkeley Repertory and The Ground Floor, a space created for creative development, support and programs for developing work. Broadway hits such as “American Idiot” is one of fourteen plays that got its start at Berkeley Rep. In an interview with Madeleine Oldham, “The Power of Shared History: A conversation with John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone,” Leguizamo describes the Berkeley Rep as one of the most prestigious theaters in  America.

John Leguizamo’s career spans from theatre, film, stand up comedy, television and literature. He has an extensive filmography: he is the voice of Sid in the Ice Age movies and had roles in “Romeo + Juliet,” “Carlito’s Way,” “The Pest” and “Moulin Rouge.” He has created and performed theatrical shows such as “Mambo Mouth,” “Freak” and “Ghetto Klown.”

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Actor John Leguizamo teaches Latin History to “Morons”