AREN'T YOU...?
A Historical Tour that Loses its Focus
By
Iride Aparicio

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Photos Courtesy: Palo Alto Players.

PALO ALTO, CA -- After writing his one-actor play Aren't You...? developed in collaboration with David Ford, describing his tour to the California Missions, playwright/Actor Fred Pitts, decided to act in it himself. So, under the direction of Shawn J. West, the play was presented h live, as a monologue, at Palo Alto Players-Peninsula Center Stage, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, from August 20 to August 29, and when it closes, it will be streamed on demand, from September 1st through September 5th by going to: https://paplayers.org/

or by calling: 650-329-0891.

Presented as a conversation between Pitts , the actor, (playing the role of a tourist visiting the California Missions) and his audience, Aren't You...? starts with him standing on stage center, in front of a movie screen where the audience can see the projection of the façade of the mission that he is describing.

In his role as a tourist, Pitts, starts his one-man play by telling the audience that he is not Catholic, but that as a child, he went to a Catholic School and even attended mass. because he enjoyed the music, and that his favorite things in life are traveling and reading history.

So, Maybe reading history, Fred Pitts, got vitalized  by the traveling spirit of  Fr. Junípero Serra, a Dominican monk from Majorca Spain (And a Catholic Saint, after being Beatified in l988 by Pope John Paul II) who in l769, walking with an infected foot, and at times riding a mule, journeyed from San Diego to Monterey, California, founding 21 Missions along what it is now called  El Camino Real, earning him the honor of  being recognized by the secular society of the United States Government as the Founding Father of California, and out of curiosity decided to travel to California and visited the 21 missions himself.

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With Mission San Diego (the first mission founded)  projected in the background,  Pitts, in his role as a tourist, starts describing historical facts about it, and as he visits others, about each one of them.

Pitt's character, as a tourist, immediately captivates our attention. His diction is clear and he uses natural movements in his acting, which is convincing.  As playwright, the words he used when writing his monologue are descriptive enough to create the pictures in our minds, which enables us to "see" what he is describing.  And the different artifacts that he is describing are interesting to the audience, because they are real and part of California's history.

Playing his role as "tourist." the first mission he visits and describes to us is Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalà, in San Diego, which is also the first Mission, founded by Father Serra in July 16, 1769, a National Historic Landmark, and the Mother of Missions.

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Fr. Serra himself, selected the site for this, his first mission, because when it was built, the California land in this particular spot, was close to water sources, and because of it, the earth was fertile, which meant that vegetables could be planted, to feed the natives. Another advantage of this site was that it was close to the villages were the natives' lived.

Sadly, six years after being founded, in 1775, the original church was burned by the natives in an uprising, and had to be replaced during the years 1776-1777, this time by a larger adobe church.  This church was damaged by an earthquake in l803. Today's Mission in San Diego, and the one that Pitts in his role as a tourist, describes to his audience, was built five years later, in l808 and completed in l813.

After the Mexican Government who ruled California secularized the mission in l846, that mission's building was abandoned by the clergy, and occupied by the U.S. Cavalry. However, in 1862, by a proclamation of President Lincoln the building was returned to the Catholic Church.  The building of the church and adjacent buildings were reconstructed in l940 and now Mission San Diego serves as a church, and its buildings as a school.  

During his over an hour monologue, Pitts the tourist, continued telling the audience interesting facts about each one of the missions. For example, if  its  building was destroyed,   when the mission was   rebuilt, and that the white adobe building housing   Mission Dolores in San Francisco (located next to the church in Dolores Street) was the actual building  built by the natives  in l782-l791. Mission Dolores, has the honor to be the only Mission founded by Fr. Junipero Serra, that still functions as a Catholic church, and is in its original building.

Pitts' s narration of his California's 21 missions, tour, his historical facts, his anecdotes, and his detailed description of some of their artifacts inside, should have been enough to continue attracting our attention in his "unique." historical play, but all of a sudden, his focus on his play changed from the missions to himself. He told the audience that because he is Black, somebody in one of the missions asked him "Aren't you? and gives us a name of a Black celebrity.

The first Aren't' you? at the beginning of his tour inside the first mission, caused laughter, but the question repeated again, with names of different Black celebrities in different professions: a movie star, a rock singer, a Baseball player. He even mentioned overhearing a kid asking his mother: "Is he the man that my father's hate? this time mistaking him for President Barack Obama. The first time he told the audience about him being mistaken by a Black celebrity that he did not even resembled, people laughed, but after his six Aren't you? the "mistaken identity" narration, felt monotonous.

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In California, being Black, or having a tanned- skin color, does not attract attention. because the High Tech Industry has imported a diversity of technicians, from all over the world many of them none white, so on a day to day basis, we see people with different shades of skin colors.

In reality, because California, specially Southern California, has so many non White, celebrities, most of them in the entertaining industry and sports, Californian have learned that celebrities (of any color) HATE to be approached by strangers and refuse to talk with them. Knowing that, they will not approach a person they believe to be a celebrity and ask him Aren't you? If they see a person they believe to be a celebrity, they will pick up their Cell phone, enter the celebrity's name in a search, and when the information appears on the screen, check his photograph and compare it with the individual that is standing in front of their eyes. If it is the celebrity, even write about him in their online dominion, because trying to talk to him or Snapping his photo, may cause the celebrity, or his look alike to sue them, or worse yet, to have the enraged celebrity to destroy their cell phone.

Another inconsistency in the monologue is his narrative of his individual tour to the missions. Most mission are only shown by touring companies like Sightseeing Grey Line Tours, that on a day to day basis bring groups of about thirty tourist by busses to the missions. Because these tourist come  from over the world, being a Black person, will never attract attention.

But at the end of our review of Aren't... you?We have nothing but praise for actor Fred Pitts, for his seamless performance, and for playwright Fred Pitts, for writing a creative historical monologue. If it had focused on the Missions alone, not on his race, it could have been perfect.  

Brief  History of the reason why the California Missions were Founded

In 1705 because Russian ships were exploring the South West Coast of California, which belonged to Spain, the Spain's King Carlos III dispatched Count José Galvez to California with the purpose to start a chain of Franciscan Missions with a minimal number of soldiers to defend them. Galvez selected as his missionary Fr. Junipero Serra, which was the Padre Presidente (equivalent of the head) of the Franciscan Order to plan his operation. Together, they worked on the planning of the project from October l768 to January of l769, envisioning the establishing of a chain of mission from San Diego to Monterrey (The Capital of California) supported by the work of the Catholic baptized natives, and protected by the Spanish Soldiers of the Spanish Armada.