Fred Pitts Tours Missions, Finds White Confusion
by Erin Weitzman
At The Marsh in San Francisco, Fred Pitts’ solo show “Aren’t You …?” brings us the voices and opinions of people who spoke to him during his tour of all the California missions. He channels the personalities of fascinating and often clueless tourists along the way. I love how Pitts tells his story directly to us.
In his dynamic and animated performance, Pitts recounts his trip to all 21 of the California missions. He traveled the ever-popular California Mission Trail, up El Camino Royal—The Royal Road. That’s where the Spanish planted their churches, along conquered territory—from San Diego to Sonoma.
We could be hearing his story in his living room. His trip to the beautiful and much-criticized missions unfolds a startling new view of history. He slowly exposes the Spaniards’ raw racism and their brutal massacre of millions of Native Americans.
The Spanish brought a Holocaust to the Natives of the New World.
As he tours, Pitts connects his life as a Black man in America to Native Americans’ torture and death in the missions. He is repeatedly greeted by predominantly white strangers, his co-tourists. But they often make racially tinged remarks—both consciously and unconsciously.
Pitts presents a clear view of past and present at the historic missions—founded by Spanish priests in the 1800s, from North to South in California.
He presents a string of unique and unsettling, though funny, experiences. The scripted tour guides offer odd and oblivious preconceptions about Native Americans. While Pitts admits that sometimes the tours blend together, each mission provides him with another startling insight into present day California.
We find out that the mission system was ultimately deadly for the Native Americans. I would like to hear more of his interesting revelations. Did he discover this untold history at that moment—or with later research?
How did he learn about the Native American devastation that is still covered up in our textbooks? I feel drawn in by his discoveries and want to know more.
As he relives the many times that his fellow tourists mistake him for a Black celebrity or hero, the title begins to make more sense to me. “Aren’t You…?” highlights the complexity of his landmark trip—especially when travelers ask: “Aren’t you that guy in the movie…?”
What automatic assumptions do we make about strangers? What mistakes have we made about so-called historical “facts”? I guess we can start with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the U.S. to find out.
Fred Pitts’ great work brilliantly combines personal story and twisted history. I recommend checking it out!
“Aren’t You …?” by Fred Pitts, directed by ShawnJ West, dramaturgy by David Ford, at The Marsh-SF. Info: TheMarsh-SF.org – to August 18, 2023.
Cast: Fred Pitts
Banner photo: Fred Pitts & a California mission. Photo by David Allen