A very cool story my dad shared with me many years ago was in regards to his time in the Marine Corps serving in Vietnam. One of his best friends was a fellow Marine, Billy Ray Cave from Mobile, Alabama. My dad bonded with Billy Ray, two guys in their late teens patrolling the jungle, in firefights daily, their lives on the line at every waking moment.
That story is in relation to the reverence the Black and Latino soldiers showed each other. When a group of Black soldiers would walk towards them, those soldiers would give them some dap, no matter how many there were. If 40 soldiers were coming, those 40 would line up to give dap, one by one.
This story was one of the many connections I made with John Leguizamo’s delightful show “Latin History for Morons,” playing through Aug. 14th in its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It’s a connection Leguizamo directly made, referring to the bond of Black and Latino platoons throughout the Vietnam War’s history.
Directed by the Rep’s artistic director Tony Taccone and co-produced with the Public Theater in New York, “Latin History” takes the ever-maturing voice and poignancy of Leguizamo, this time turning the focus away from his own dad, a common theme in his shows, and puts it on his own fatherly ways dealing with his son and daughter.
Leguizamo is on a quest to help his son, who he lovingly calls Buddy. Buddy is the victim of a bully who comes from a long legacy of military heroes, the bully even taking some kind of perverse pride that infamous presidential prick Andrew Jackson’s bloodline runs through him.
While Leguizamo first tries to reason with the kid’s dad, who’s just a bigger version of the punk bully, Leguizamo takes it upon himself to help Buddy get bigger and stronger. Not with his body, but through a heroes project, one that will ultimately be the key to Buddy’s promotion from eighth grade.
Leguizamo then launches into a 90-minute seminar on the history of Latino people, starting with the Tainos, Aztecs and Mayans, and then leaving a huge gaping hole to now, a hole that may or may not have been filled in by Pitbull. While searching for heroes as examples of the greatness of Latinos, he realizes there were plenty of Latino asses kicked throughout history, an ethnic cleansing that still reverberates today, with a few unsubtle references to the current state of affairs led by the Republican nominee for president. He uses a chalkboard to illustrate all of his salient points, and the chalkboard kind of becomes metaphor for his stage work – frenetic, controlled chaos.
Fans of Leguizamo’s stage shows will be happy to see the return of some of his popular characters, people such as Uncle Sandy, a man he referred to in his Tony-nominated show “Freak” as a triple threat – “Latin, gay and deaf.” There are also many mostly spot on imitations, some with a heavy dose of irreverence throughout, something Leguizamo has never shied away from. And another staple of his stage shows, the always magical busting into a dance was there too, showing his deep merengue roots, set to the badass tune of Mala Fe’s “La Vaca.”
Leguizamo’s voice has certainly evolved in his stage work, and he has always been kind to the Bay Area, bringing many full productions and other workshop work over the years. His first two shows, “Mambo Mouth” and “Spic O Rama” showcased a budding talent with a head full of characters, a performer that can seamlessly play anyone. Colorful characters included folks such as a prepubescent boy waiting for unwanted sex, to Manny the Fanny, a steamy prostitute who sticks up for her friend, all while rockin’ a seriously tight lavender miniskirt.
My favorite of his shows has been “Freak,” a story that is loaded with pathos, humor and a deeper understanding on how a young boy from Jackson Heights, Queens found his voice and inspiration through some serious family dysfunction. While “Sexaholix” was not as compelling for me, “Ghetto Klown” is another beautifully nuanced and humor-filled view into what a Latino in Hollywood has to endure in order to work.
But this work is different than everything else, because it focuses solely on the most important role of his life – the role of a father. While his daughter called “Boo” is locked in the grips of Teenland, with headphones that have seemingly atrophied on her ears, it is his desire not to fail his son that keeps the piece moving.
The most powerful stretch of the play is the frenetic moment where he rattles off fact after fact about Latino military heroes. There’s Loreta Velazquez, aka Harry T. Buford, a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight for the Confederate side in the Civil War. He mentions Guy Louis Gabaldon, a Mexican-American from East Los Angeles who did much to capture Japanese soldiers from Saipan and Tinian islands during World War II.
War is a wonderful metaphor for other aspects of life. Buddy is in a war of his own. This is where the ultimate use of the phrase “Knowledge is power” comes in. But with the help of dad, the young man finds his voice in the most poignant of ways. Leguizamo’s strength is in the flow, guided nicely by Taccone’s sharp direction.
The power of “Latin History for Morons” lies in a personal place for me. As a Mexican-American, I have always understood what it was like to try and find inspiration in regards to my people in places that weren’t obvious. But having my own illustrious history of military men in my family gave me a very specific set of eyes to watch the show. There is lots of information to glean and filter through. Having Leguizamo take on such a gargantuan task of explaining so much history in 90 minutes is a remarkable feat in itself.
And for that, Leguizamo deserves a whole lot of dap.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of “Latin History for Morons”
A c0-production with the Public Theater in New York
Written and performed by John Leguizamo
Directed by Tony Taccone
The Word: A solid poignant piece that gets in a ton of history, led by Leguizamo’s joyous stage presence.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $35 – $60
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org