Theater

The World According to Brian Copeland

Playwright sounds off on growing up black in one of America’s "most racist suburbs" in Not a Genuine Black Man.

By Laura Dannen February 11, 2010

When Brian Copeland was eight, his mother moved his family to an all-white suburb of San Francisco; that neighborhood came to be known as one of the most “racist suburbs in America” in the 1970s. Now a comedian, Copeland unpacks his past in his hit one-man play, Not a Genuine Black Man, which runs at Theatre Off Jackson February 11–14.

But before the show opens, he reveals a bit…

…about the play’s title:
“I host a Sunday morning radio show for the ABC affiliate in San Francisco and the title came from an unsigned crank letter that said: “As an African American, I am disgusted every time I hear your voice because you are not a genuine black man.” It’s the same nonsense Barack Obama had to deal with—the very first question he got during the YouTube debate was “Are you black enough?” and his response was, “Well, I can’t get a cab.” I thought that was great comeback. So then I went through this whole litany of, okay, why do people say that? Is it how I dress? How I talk? Because I watch Frasier? Then I had the revelation that culturally, from the time I was eight—when my family moved to San Leandro, California in the early ’70s, when San Leandro was 99.4 percent white—I spent my youth and formative years as the only black face in the room.

“I’ve been called an Oreo. There are Asians who’ve been called bananas or Twinkies by their Asian peers: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Latinos tell me they’re referred to as coconuts. Who determines what you are? Who determines what it means to be authentic? That’s a major theme of the play.”

about San Leandro’s dirty secret:
"I tell the librarian at San Leandro Library [about the play I’m working on] and she gives me this yellowing stack of papers; it was a term paper written for a sociology class at what was then Cal State University Hayward (now East Bay) called “How San Leandro’s 10 Homeowners Associations Keep the City an All-White Ghetto.” And I thought, what? I knew that I had had difficulty growing up, walking down the street with adults yelling “nigger” out the car window, but what I didn’t know until I saw this paper was that it was an organized plot and had been investigated.

"I find out that Newsweek magazine had come to town, and had interviewed a couple guys who were popping off about how San Leandro needs a Hitler to take care of the troublemakers. I find out that U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had conducted hearings; I find out that a documentary had been done called The Suburban Wall. See, San Leandro is on the border of Oakland, and at the time, Oakland was half black. Most of the white flight to San Leandro was from Oakland. So at the border, it used to be known informally as “the invisible wall.” If you were black and you crossed over the city limits, there was a cop whose beat it was to follow you until either he had a pretext to stop you, or you turned around and went back across the border. Even little kids on bicycles.

“And this is all 20 miles from San Francisco, one of the most liberal cities in America. The story takes place five years after the Summer of Love, 10 miles from the UC Berkeley campus. That’s what makes this a story. If this took place in Mississippi or Alabama, people would say, what’s your point?”

…about earning the title ‘one of the most racist suburbs in America’:
“I should say it was considered by fair housing advocates to be one of the most racist suburbs in the country. Prior to 1948, it was legal to put race covenants in the deeds to property, where you could say no one is allowed to live here except for people who are Caucasian. Then the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed it, so this realtor here in the East Bay area came up with this scheme of homeowners associations. They tell you what color you can paint your house and that your hedges can only be so high, those kinds of things. But they can also arbitrarily decide who was or was not a fit homeowner to purchase in an area.”

…about what to expect during the show:
"This isn’t stand-up routine. It’s two acts and it’s just as funny as it is heavy. I play 30 different characters and I tell the story about how we got to San Leandro juxtaposed [with] when I was in my thirties, when I was suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from all the stuff I had repressed when I was a kid.

“This also isn’t about being black. When people see the word black in the title, they’ll assume it’s some Def Jam thing. It’s about being different. When I was Off-Broadway with the show, my largest audience was Holocaust survivors. They relate to this story of a little boy who’s isolated. There’s no safe haven—not at home, where there’s domestic violence, not on the street, where he’s harassed by bullies and the police. No place.”

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