By coincidence, I spent the opening night performance of Fred Pitts’ Aren’t You…? (through May 5 at The Marsh Berkeley) seated in the row in front of director ShawnJ West. As I made myself comfortable and retrieved my notepad, I overheard him tell an audience member that Pitts has been eager to tell this particular story since sometime in the 2000s. The director and star had intended to stage the solo show back in 2020, but had to postpone three times due to a certain world event—one that is by no means “over,” is the reason The Marsh still has its mask mandate, and is the reason I brought my Aranet4 with me.
It’s oddly appropriate that the production had a long route to completion since the story recounts Pitts’ long journey along the California coast. It’s his recollection of touring all along the state to see its old Spanish colonial missions. For the pious journeyman who attended Catholic school during his ‘70s youth in Ohio, the trip offers a grand opportunity to witness historical houses of worship. For a Black man travelling on his own, it’s the opportunity to be mistaken for every Black celeb who’s ever had their photo taken.
The trip itself is enlightening, if a bit exhausting. He tours every standing building, from the Solano Mission in Sonoma down to Mission San Luis Rey, the Southern California shooting location of the Lone Ranger TV series. Not every stop is awe-inspiring (he describes Fremont’s Mission San José as “kinda boring—just like Fremont”), but he’s genuinely struck by Mission San Juan Batista (the only standing mission directly on the San Andreas Fault and location for the climax of Hitchcock’s Vertigo).
At each location, he’s taken aback both by the architecture (some of which had to be retrofitted and recreated by property owners) and the extent to which onsite “historians” will go to whitewash the history of the Europeans’ genocide of the Native tribes. Sure, the docents of each site will occasionally provide a juicy tidbit for tourists, like how Mission Santa Cruz was the site of the first autopsy performed in California, on a priest who died of “mysterious circumstances.” But they’ll often stop short of explaining that the missionaries had blood on their hands, like how the priest was openly abusive to Indigenous people, who likely killed him as payback. It isn’t lost on Pitts, the paradox of these preserved historical artifacts standing in tribute to the erasure of a crime against humanity.
Then, of course, there’s the reason for play’s title. At the first stop in Solano, the tour guide informs him that she doesn’t see a lot of Black folks visiting the mission. That seems to act as a set-off point for the other (mostly white) tourists at other missions to mistake Pitts for a popular Black celebrity. At one point, he’s mistaken for Shaft star Richard Roundtree, another will say Billy Dee Williams, and one little girl tells her father she thinks Pitts looks like “the darkie president you and Mommy hate.” Yet, things really get head-tilting when he’s mistaken for Will Smith (pre-slap) and obscure British athlete Daley Thompson.
Through it all, Pitts allows the mistakes and criticisms to roll off his back, heeding to his late grandmother’s advice to do so. Embracing the advice of elders is one thing, but one has to wonder what that lack of catharsis does to one’s mental health in the long run? Sure, it’s funny to hear him talk about taking photos with tourists who think they’ve met a superstar, but there’s a conspicuous lack of any mention of how—and I say this from first-hand experience—when Black people (men, in particular) are told we “look like” someone it’s often the suspect of a crime. Hopefully, no such profiling happened to Pitts on his trip.
Still, West and Pitts wisely keep the hour-long show moving at a steady clip, accompanying his anecdotes with photos of the missions projected above the stage. One curious choice repeatedly pops up whenever Pitts describes a celeb for whom he’s been mistaken: He reaches into an attaché case, pulls out a headshot of said celeb, and holds it next to his face for comedic contrast. That’s all fine and well, but every instance of this is accompanied by a projected still image of Pitts holding the same headshot. Why they felt the need to have him do both in-person and in a projected photo, I don’t know?
With the pandemic still raging out of control after three and a half years (including the recent discovery of the much-more-infectious “Arcturus” variant), I was happy to see both the numerous standing air purifiers (two in the back of the theatre) and attendees of The Marsh adhering to their still-in-place mask mandate. CO² levels on my Aranet4 peaked around 878ppm over the course of the hour-long show.
Pitts has always been a personable and approachable actor, something that no doubt aided in tourists feeling comfortable enough to tell him how much they enjoyed the work of whomever they mistook him for. The best you can say them is that their casual racism doesn’t seem to have come from any intentional malice. It’s as if Pitts’ intended spiritual journey wound up served the additional purpose of showing how little progress has been made since the conquerors decimated the Natives. Sure, it’s not as bad the violence those folks had to face, but it’s still dehumanizing to be so openly regarded as interchangeable, even with someone lauded. Finding the similarities of those two parallel journeys provides the thrice-delayed show with its best moments.
AREN’T YOU…?’s world premiere runs through May 5 at The Marsh Berkeley. Tickets and more here.