The Bay Area actor-activist on reviving his celebrated solo show to counteract what he calls a lack of national empathy in the Trump era. “We have regressed,” he says.
Brian Copeland was just 8 years old the first time a white person called him the N-word to his face. He had just moved to a new town and was trying to make the best of it, wandering the neighborhood looking for a playground, when a group of white teens stopped to harass him.
He re-enacts traumatic scenes like this one from his childhood in his show Not a Genuine Black Man, which is the longest running one-man show in Bay Area history, now on stage at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley.
It’s a painful yet humorous story set in a not-too-distant past, in a not-too-distant place. Copeland grew up in San Leandro, which was at the time nearly 100 percent white. City officials and locals were hell-bent on keeping it that way and did so through a combination of racist homeowner’s associations, policing and intimidation. In 1972, in the midst of all this, Brian Copeland and his sisters, mother and grandmother moved there, becoming basically one of the town’s only families of color.
Though the play is about how Copeland dealt with the trauma of the racism he faced as a child into adulthood, he says it has a universal theme. “At some point in your life, no matter who you are, you’re going to find yourself in a place where you’re the only one,” he says. “How do you navigate those waters when you’re the one who is different?”
Copeland, now a well-known Bay Area comedian, writer, TV personality and actor, has made a career of mining his life’s most challenging moments for humor, entertainment and, presumably, catharsis. His other theatrical works include The Waiting Period, a show about depression and suicide. His newest play, debuting in April at the Marsh, is Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents, about his experience being raised by his grandmother after his mother died and, years later, raising his own three children as a single father. (He’s also currently performing The Great American Sh*tshow at various Bay Area locations. Tagline: “If you love Trump, you’ll hate this show.”)
Copeland got his start performing while still a teenager living in the Bay Area. He would venture into San Francisco to watch comics perform at clubs like Cobb’s, fake ID in hand. His first time onstage was at San Leandro’s Tommy T’s Comedy House. It was owned by Copeland’s youth baseball coach, who said he’d give him a shot filling in for a comic who called in sick that night. It was 5 p.m.and the show was at 9 p.m. “This is 18 and dumb,” Copeland explains. He grabbed a newspaper and jotted down a few jokes based on the day’s stories and took the stage a few hours later. “I didn’t kill,” he says. “But I got some laughs.”
He couldn’t get the thrill of that first onstage experience out of his head. “It was something about that rush,” he says. That fall, Copeland started at Holy Names University in Oakland, with plans to go to Hastings law school after graduation. Working at a camera store in the Bay Fair Mall and attending college, he would perform stand up at night. Later, he left school and gave himself a year to see if could make a living doing comedy. He did.
Copeland has since headlined clubs across the country and opened for artists like Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole and Smokey Robinson. He’s also appeared on comedy shows on TV stations including NBC and MTV and spent five years co-hosting San Francisco’s Mornings on 2 program on Fox. His first network TV special, Now Brian Copeland, premiered after Saturday Night Live in 2015.
During an interview with the legendary writer-actor-director Carl Reiner, Copeland says he got a crucial piece of advice that inspired his next creative project. “Find the piece of ground you stand on and write from there,’” Copeland recalls Reiner telling him at the time. (Reiner famously based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own experience as a comedy writer and young father living in suburban New York.)
One day, after hosting his Sunday talk radio show, Copeland received a unsigned letter from a listener. “‘As an African American, I’m disgusted every time I hear your voice because you are not a genuine black man,’” Copeland recalls. It was a version of the criticism he’d heard before. “I thought, ‘Bingo! That’s it. That’s my piece of ground.’”
He wrote Genuine, his first solo play, partly as a response to that letter. In addition to mining his childhood for stories, he researched what was happening in San Leandro’s housing market at the time. The town became something of a national symbol of the kind of suburban racism and housing discrimination that persisted even after the civil rights movement. In 1971, the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing called San Leandro a “racist bastion of white supremacy.” CBS aired an hourlong documentary on the situation, which Copeland discovered while researching the play.
Directed by David Ford, Genuine debuted in 2004 and was supposed to run for just two weeks. It went on to run at the Marsh for more than two years before going on to Los Angeles and Off-Broadway for an eight-year run. (He’s also adapted it into a book.) A rhetorical question — is Copeland a “real” black man? — forms the premise for much of the comedy. Copeland, who plays every character, including his formidable grandmother and himself as an 8-year old. Traumatic scenes are interspersed with humorous asides and counterpoints poking fun at the ludicrous nature of that question. (On the one hand: He likes chitlins, the African American soul food staple. On the other hand: He prefers to pronounce them “chitterlings,” like their formal Oxford English spelling.)
Copeland stopped performing the show for a few years during the Obama administration (he likes to joke that having a black president cured racism, so “what was the point?”) but he’s revived it in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The U.S. is in the midst of a moment that Copeland describes as a national lack of empathy. “We have regressed,” he says. “I’m hoping by bringing the show back is to do something that can facilitate the conversation we need to have in this country about race and what it means.”