For many of us, back to school is still some weeks away. But John Leguizamo is getting the jump on history in the hilarious “Latin History for Morons,” making its world premiere in a new Berkeley Repertory Theatre co-production with New York ’s Public Theater.
A raucous whirlwind tour of the role of Latinos in U.S. history, the one-man show finds the acclaimed actor-monologist on a mission. Looking professorial in jeans, jacket, shirt and tie, Leguizamo — a “self-professed ghetto scholar on an intellectual jihad” — blazes through 3,000 years of war, conquest, marginalization and misunderstanding.
Framed as a family drama — his son can’t graduate 8th grade until he writes a paper on a Latin-American hero, and, sadly, he can’t think of a single one — the show sends Leguizamo on a manic journey to trace the paths of the Aztecs and Incas, Spanish conquistadors and American opportunists. From Pizarro (“the original sex addict”) to Columbus (“the Donald Trump of the New World ”) — with cameos by Moctezuma, Cortes, Andrew Jackson, Stephen Hawking, cross-dressing Confederate soldier Loreta Velazquez and more — Leguizamo presents a scorching, refreshingly original take on the past.
Leguizamo, whose work in theater began with “Mambo Mouth” in 1991 (his most recent Berkeley Rep show was the 2010 “Klass Klown,” which went on to a Broadway run as “Ghetto Klown”) is an agile, appealing performer, and his characterizations are both mercurial and spot-on.
In a little over 90 minutes, he plays family members — his Jewish wife (“she’s very intolerant of intolerance”), his peppy daughter, morose son and Puerto Rican uncle — and observers, such as his droll, disinterested therapist, lamely applauding John’s “repressed ghetto rage.” His interpretations of “authentic Indian dancing” (choreography by Emmanuel Hernandez) are fabulous.
Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, a longtime Leguizamo collaborator, stages the show in a low-tech classroom (set and lighting by Alexander V. Nichols) with a large chalkboard that Leguizamo fills with names, dates, and diagrams. As it proceeds through riffs on language, Thanksgiving, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, it comes to a head in an alcohol-fueled rant at a Texas cultural center. It’s all very funny. But “Latin History for Morons” isn’t just for laughs.
In the end, Leguizamo’s lesson plan gives audiences a pretty good education.
John Leguizamo: Latin History for Morons
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison St.. Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 7 and 10 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 14
Tickets: $35 to $60
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org