“Aren’t You…?” the title of Fred Pitts’ solo show at The Marsh in San Francisco, only hints at the several themes that run through it.
At the heart of the monologue is his cheerful admission that he’s a history geek. Thus, his plea for unvarnished history in our educational system, an important and all-too-pressing issue.
And thus too the structure that anchors the show. It’s a sort of historical travelogue depicting, with slides and commentary, his solitary, 700-mile road trip to visit all 21 California missions from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, from San Rafael to San Diego.
The travelogue is introduced with a history lesson on California (the Spanish, the Native Americans and more) that is undoubtedly more warts-and-all truthful than what California kids learned (or are learning) in fourth grade, and it’s sprinkled with plenty of interesting “useless mission factoids,” descriptions of the history (e.g., some missions are replicas, some are restorations) and the exterior and the interior of each one, with unabashed personal opinions (“boring,” “beautiful”).
Along the way, Pitts runs into other tourists with a penchant for California history—white tourists, many of whom stare at this lone Black man, certain they recognize him. Barry Bonds? Will Smith? Ted Lange from “The Love Boat”? Pretty much any Black male will do (including Obama!). Pitts, projecting slides of himself holding up a photo of the supposedly lookalike celebrity, shrugs it off good-naturedly, ruefully. But the unconscious (and in one case downright pointed) racism is clear—and very funny.
The racism Pitts experiences personally is only one element in his show. His endless curiosity about history—including additional research on his part — leads him to the realization, among other things, that hundreds of graves in a certain mission graveyard are mysteriously missing (as in unreported by the mission)—graves of Native Americans. (Pitts tell us that Spanish soldiers, who guarded the missions before California became a state, routinely abused Native American workers.)
Along the way, Pitts inhabits several characters–his wise, outspoken and beloved (old Black church lady) grandma, a few missionary docents, a few preachers. Each gentle caricature is beautifully specific. Pitts is a polished performer and a warm, humorous onstage presence.
The 70-minute show, directed by ShawnJ West and developed/dramaturged by David Ford, has been performed around the Bay Area for a few years so this may be the last chance to see it for a while. The stage is bare, with merely a stool and a screen for projections, but nothing more is needed; Pitts’s likeable persona, acting chops and carefully wrought story is enormously satisfying.
“Aren’t You?….” runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays through Aug. 18 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$100 at themarsh.org.