Writer, actor and former emergency medicine doctor Fred Pitts would like you to know that he looks nothing like Will Smith.
In his new one-man play Aren’t You…?—the first live performance at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theater in over 18 months—Pitts chronicles his 2012 travels down the California coast to visit each of the state’s twenty-one missions, and how, along the way, he was told over and over again how much he resembles other Black people. The story Pitts weaves is as much about the racial bias he encountered as it is about mission history and the indigenous people who lived, were subjugated and died there.
“History depends on who is telling it, and what they want you to remember,” Pitts reminds audiences during the show.
While humorous, Aren’t You…? is also a timely examination of both conscious racism and unconscious bias. Pitts believes that while he experienced one “nasty” and particularly targeted interaction on his trip, he feels most people were just displaying a benign and unconscious bias surrounding race.
“My feeling is most of them were just trying to make conversation. Was I upset with it? No. Do I think people are being mean? No. It might be people just trying to, I guess, maybe make me feel comfortable in that environment,” Pitts tells Metro.
He adds that while everyone harbors biases, people often bristle at the word “racist,” equating it not with the racial face blindness he experienced at the missions or political incorrectness, but with hate groups like the KKK, or those who violently protested school integration.
“I think we just need to look at our prejudices and our biases. And that’s hard. Because it means looking at ourselves, and looking at ourselves is hard,” Pitts says.
A self-proclaimed history super-geek, Pitts was raised between Baptist churches in his grandmother’s home town of Atlanta and a very white Catholic school in his native Dayton, Ohio. Throughout Aren’t You…?, he marvels at the historical architecture and religious iconography of the missions, picks up “useless mission factoids,” and tries to access the real history—the “history from all sides”—of the California missions. Often, he is greeted with a white-washed version in which Franciscan missionaries and Spanish soldiers are portrayed as benevolent saviors who brought civilization to California’s Indigenous people.
Several times, Pitts finds himself standing in a church cemetery where over ten thousand Indigenous people lived and died. Yet, memorial plaques list only two to five thousand bodies. Each time, Pitts finds himself asking: “Where are the rest of the bodies?”
This moment in particular rings true. This June, First Nations people in Canada discovered “at least 600” unmarked graves of children at the Marieval Residential School for the Indigenous in Saskatchewan. The same month, 215 more were discovered at a similar school in British Columbia. A month later, another 182 were discovered, also in British Columbia.
Aren’t You…? was written prior to the pandemic, but Pitts wonders how it might have been received before the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent cultural examination that followed.
“I’m curious how the show would have been received coming out a year ago,” Pitts says, “but all of us watched all of the issues with prejudice and bias and everything that happened in this country in the last year because we had no place to go but our televisions and computers.”
Pitts also comments on the idea of “colorblindness” as a solution to racism and bias, saying that claims to “colorblindness”—or, the glossing over of racialized experience in America—parallels the sanitization of the dark history of California’s mission system.
“If you really are colorblind, I feel that you are less willing and able to actually see that something is based on privilege or bias or race, because in your mind you think everyone is the same,” Pitts says. “I look at people who say ‘I don’t see you as Black’ and I say, ‘Oh, you better see me as Black.’ Because I am, you know?”
But that doesn’t mean he looks like Will Smith.
Fri-Sun, various times, $40
Streaming on demand through Sept 5
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto