As audience members arrive for Brian Copeland’s solo show Not a Genuine Black Man, a mix of topical pop songs plays over the theater’s speakers. “Brown Sugar” segues into “Black Is Black”; “Ebony and Ivory” gives way to Michael Jackson insisting, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” It’s been ages since anyone regarded Michael Jackson as a trustworthy source, but writer-performer Copeland can testify as to just how ridiculous those words are.
As an African American child growing up in the 99.9 percent white—and unabashedly racist—town of San Leandro, a suburb of San Francisco, Copeland learned that whether you were black or white mattered enormously. When the eight-year-old Copeland moved to San Leandro with his mother, grandmother, and sisters in 1971, blackness earned him insults, violence, and threats of eviction. Even as innocent an activity as heading for the park with a baseball and bat might end with a ride in the back of a squad car and a policeman lecturing his mother that she shouldn’t let her son out of the house carrying a dangerous weapon.
Thirty years later, Copeland, a comedian and radio host, still lives in San Leandro—which has since grown infinitely more diverse. But returning to the landscape of his childhood is a fraught journey, and he’s obliged to detour with glimpses of his present-day life and comic discursions on his relative blackness (he likes Motown, a plus, but TiVos Frasier—certainly a demerit). These jokes amuse, but they aren’t nearly so compelling as his autobiography. Clearly, the comedy comes easier to Copeland; his affable, froggy voice takes on a welcome casualness while he delivers his one-liners. Conversely, he stiffens and falters when he forces himself to rage or weep at the events of his youth. It’s a shame director Bob Balaban couldn’t help infuse this far more powerful material with the onstage naturalness Copeland is capable of. Copeland is undoubtedly a genuine black man and a genuine memoirist; given time and considered direction, he’ll be a genuine stage performer too.