rian Copeland wasn't looking for success as an actor or playwright. He has been working for more than 20 years as a standup comedian, playing venues such as Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and opening for the likes of James Brown; he has also carved out a cozy niche as a radio personality, hosting a popular talk show for San Francisco station KGO. In 2001, however, Copeland says he felt himself hitting a creative wall, knowing there was something else he wanted to say or do. He wasn't sure what that something was until he received an anonymous letter at the radio station. "As an African American," the letter said, "I'm disgusted every time I hear your voice because you're not a genuine black man." So began the latest phase of Copeland's career.
More than just a hate-mail excerpt, Not a Genuine Black Man is the name of Copeland's solo show, which opened at Off-Broadway's Daryl Roth Theatre on May 17, directed by Bob Balaban, and runs through July 30. In the piece, Copeland explores his time growing up in San Leandro, Calif.—which, during his 1970s youth, was almost entirely white. An attempt to reconcile a past defined by racism with his experience as an adult, the piece was an unqualified smash on the West Coast, where it became the longest-running solo work in San Francisco history. It's two-year run at The Marsh, a three-stage complex, was so well-attended that the venue built additional space to house all the other shows it was committed to producing. He now hopes for success in New York City as well.
And he clearly feels his history affords him the opportunity to address racism as part of the American experience. When his family moved to San Leandro in 1972, the city had already been lambasted by the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing as one of the most racist towns in the nation. A 1971 documentary called The Suburban Wall had even demonstrated the local population's efforts to keep people of color away. Recalling his youth in this hostile town, he relates stories both funny and tragic about the discrimination he endured, from cops who thought he was an 8-year-old criminal to his mother's decision to sue the family's landlord for evicting them because of their race.
That past affects Copeland's present, too. He still lives in San Leandro—now a diverse community—with his wife and three children, and it is there that he has faced how his upbringing divided him from the worlds of both black and white. "The grief I've gotten most of my life is that I'm too white," he says. At the same time, "Some segments of black society don't believe that I'm black enough, and white society thinks I'm too black. I'm like a man without a country." Not a Genuine Black Man, he concludes, "is about having your face pressed up against the glass, about never truly belonging anywhere."
That's a massive topic, and when he started writing, he had no idea how he'd address it. For more than a year after receiving that fateful letter, he recorded his memories of growing up in San Leandro. "I would walk my kids to school in the morning, and I would stop on my way home at this café…and I wrote every story I could think of," he recalls.
As he began filling notebooks, he slowly found his "own piece of ground" as an artist. That phrase was given to him by Carl Reiner, the legendary television producer whom Copeland befriended after Reiner appeared on his radio show. It was Reiner who encouraged him to start writing his history in the first place.
Eventually Copeland realized he wanted to turn his memories into a play—after all, standup comedy made him comfortable onstage. He reached out blindly to the San Francisco arts community. An email to former San Francisco Chronicle theatre critic Steven Winn resulted in an introduction to director David Ford. Ford immediately responded to Copeland's pitch and set about helping him to craft his writing into a two-act play. (The Balaban production in New York is a one-act.)
Copeland's process of turning the story of his childhood into theatre gave him a deeper understanding of how he wanted his story told. He looked to old episodes of All in the Family to get a sense of what he calls "real-life timing." He particularly lauds that sitcom's ability to slide between serious and funny moments in a single episode, and has striven to achieve a similar balance with Not a Genuine Black Man.
Asked why it's important to upend funny moments with serious moments—such as when a Sunday brunch recalled in the play is suddenly undercut by a note of racism—he says, "Because that's exactly how life is. Life is full of sucker punches. You're driving along and you think everything's great, and something happens that changes you."
Such a broad perspective points to the universal appeal of his material, something he acknowledges is not immediately apparent. By and large, he explains, audiences tend to discover and understand his play in phases. "When you put the word 'black' in something, people assume it's some sort of hip-hop or Def Jam kind of thing," he asserts. "And white people would stay away, thinking it's not their particular cup of tea. But once people understood what [the play] was, it was just amazing what the audience became." For instance, so many Bay Area professors began attending the show that Fridays became known as "educator nights."
The rest of the entertainment industry also seems to believe that there are plenty of people to relate to the story. Last year, he received an unexpected phone call from Amy Rennert, a literary agent and former television producer with whom he had worked a decade before. She told him she thought there was a book to be made of his play; three days after submitting a proposal, Hyperion agreed to publish Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs, which hits bookstores on July 11.
Copeland is careful not to associate the book with his persona as a standup comic: "I didn't want to write one of those comedian books where basically they take their act and transcribe it," he says. "I wanted to write a real book—the storyline of the play, but much, much more in depth."
Soon, he may be digging even deeper into his relationship with racial identity. After seeing a tape of Not a Genuine Black Man, Reiner forwarded it to his son, director-producer Rob Reiner. The younger Reiner was so taken by the material that he agreed to back it as a potential television series. Copeland says a pilot has been written and submitted to HBO, and that the network is mulling giving it the green light.
For now, though, the idea of book tours and television deals is less on Copeland's mind than performing Not a Genuine Black Man seven times a week. Even as new career areas potentially open up to him, he remains focused on the drive that helped him succeed as a standup comic and radio personality. It's crucial, he says, to keep his mind on his work when it's so personal. "People always ask me, 'Is this show cathartic for you?' No, because I worked through this stuff," Copeland says. "If I hadn't worked through this stuff, I couldn't be up here talking about this."