According to the timeline drawn by John Leguizamo, the entire history of indigenous people in the pre-Columbus Americas is as follows: First, there’s the era of the Mayans in 1,000 B.C.; and then there’s today, the age of music mogul Pitbull.
His one-man show, Latin History for Morons — which makes its way to TPAC Nov. 15 — was created out of Leguizamo’s favorite real-life role: devoted dad.
“I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know enough about my ancestry to pass on to my kids,” Leguizamo notes in the show.
After realizing the lack of Latino presence in his son’s history books, Leguizamo was inspired to do his own research and fill in the historical gaps himself. He now bestows bits of his recent self-education to audiences through a raucous, non-stop 110-minute ride through the revolutionary heaps of Latin history.
Getting a mainstream audience excited about history isn’t easy. However, Leguizamo flies seamlessly through a variety of characters — including his children, wife and several key players in the development and decimation of the Incas, Tainos, Mayans and other indigenous Americans.
Leguizamo, now in his mid-50s, has made a career with his frantic energy. It’s hard to believe he was “Luigi” in 1993’s Super Mario Bros, “Sid the Sloth” in the animated Ice Age films and “Toulouse” in Moulin Rouge! Even alongside Keanu Reeves in the John Wick franchise, Leguizamo’s performances have evolved to feature much more sentiment. Perhaps the change is a byproduct of being a dad.
The jumping off point for Latin History is his eighth-grade son being bullied in school for his Latin heritage. To help his son discover heroes from his cultural roots, Leguizamo dives deep into history books, including Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Charles Mann’s 1491.
“Why is all our art called folk art, and all of European art is called fine art, and then modern art is just our folk art gentrified?” he asks at one point during the show.
He argues that while European history is considered superior in modern America, it erased the memory of the indigenous people that developed remarkable civilizations, art and technology.
“Europeans’ biggest exports to the new world,” Leguizamo explains in the show, “include syphilis and other diseases.”
Latin History for Morons had a successful 16-week run on Broadway that concluded Feb. 25 before Leguizamo took it on the road.
Leguizamo’s primary prop is a chalkboard, and scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides a replica of a classroom to complement that aesthetic. More set assistance comes from Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting and a variety of lively mambo, samba and other Latin dance music composed by Bray Poor.
The one-man show offers plenty of laughs; but also plenty of poignancy.
The show centers on honoring the positives and remembering crucial elements of America that have been forgotten — such as Latinx people fighting in every war in the country’s history and Latinx women being a dominant force in starting new businesses.
The actor, comedian and playwright said his goal with his work is simple.
“I want to make a difference and leave the world a better place.”
Latin History for Morons runs Nov. 15 at TPAC’s Polk Theater. For tickets, call 615-782-4040 or visit TPAC.org.
Connect with Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.