Brian Copeland has a sad story to tell. But he tells it with such wit and self-deprecating humor that his audience has been laughing through its tears. For 10 years, in fact, making “Not a Genuine Black Man” allegedly the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history. Now this tale of a little African-American boy growing up in a Northern California suburb known in the 1970s for being whiter than Wonder Bread and the man he became, is at Berkeley Rep’s new adjunct Osher studio theater for a month. Anybody who didn’t catch it over the past decade should run, not walk, to snag a seat.
Copeland, in the best tradition of monologists like Spalding Gray and Anna Deavere Smith, inhabits a host of characters, in addition to his 8-year-old and mature self. Wonderfully drawn, they include his feisty, foul-mouthed Southern-born grandmother, Lena, his mother, a woman struggling for elegance in an inelegant world, his bratty little sister and the abusive father, mostly absent but terrifying when he’s around. Then there are the landlords, building supers, lawyers and judges and cops, some adversaries, others allies in little Brian’s family’s struggle to stay in the San Leandro apartment where, because of their color, they are personae non gratae.
What emerges is a wrenching portrait of racism and stereotyping, upward mobility and exclusion, violence and gentility — all of which contributed to the identity confusion that led Copeland into depression and a suicide attempt as an adult. “I didn’t know what I was,” he tells us.
This is supposed to be funny? Well, yeah, the way he tells it it is hysterically funny in parts. Like the time the 8-year-old Brian is put up against the car of a racist cop and frisked. “I was 8,” Copeland shrugs at the audience. Or when Grandma Lena defuses the anger of a mob seeking revenge for a cat thrown in a swimming pool (the timid Brian didn’t do it but these San Leandrans don’t care — he’s black) by dousing them with hot water she was cooking collard greens in or when Brian, called to testify in his mother’s wrongful eviction suit and over-prepared by watching “Perry Mason” reruns, objects to the attorney’s cross-examination in erudite legal language — and wins his point. And, and, and…
Between the humor and the heartbreak, Copeland — a likable fellow who also is a radio talk show host — keeps us engaged for the better part of two hours with nothing but a bottle of water, a handkerchief, David Hines’ lighting and a lifetime of memories to aid him. He may not be “a genuine black man,” whatever that is, but Brian Copeland is a real entertainer.