Brian Copeland’s new solo show Grandma & Me is subtitled An Ode to Single Parents, and it’s a subject he knows well.
“My sisters and I have been waiting for years to clean out my grandmother’s things,” says Copeland. “When she died it was so emotional for us because she’s the one who raised us.”
And as Copeland notes, it was no ordinary feat.
“My mother died when I was 14,” he explains. “There were five of us and my youngest sister was 1 year old at the time. When we lost Grandma, she was 85, but it was sudden. She had a stroke and was in the hospital for three days, then we lost her. So it was super, super emotional for us to clear out her stuff. My sister found the Alameda County document granting her custody of the five of us. I looked at this document and was suddenly struck by the enormity of what she had done. Here was this 57-year-old woman, educated by Jim Crow in Birmingham, who had lost her only child and was raising five children, ages 1 to 14, all by herself.”
Decades later, Copeland would get a firsthand sense of what she went through.
“I got divorced in 2001 and ended up having sole custody of my three,” he recalls. “They were in first, fifth and seventh grade. Her mother did all the back to school stuff and all the everyday stuff because I used to do ‘morning at 2’ back then. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was out with Aretha Franklin or Smokey Robinson or someone else, or I was sleeping at home. Then when I suddenly got primary custody, it was all up to me.”
It wasn’t until he looked at this guardianship document that the connection really clicked for him and became the inspiration for this show.
“I chose to look at the lessons I took from what Grandma learned in that first year of having us and the first year of having my three,” says Copeland. “Because the first year was the hardest year. When Grandma had us we were all in shock and in excruciating pain after losing our mother. And when I had my three, they had all this pain from going through this divorce.
A longtime comedian and TV talk show host, Copeland is known for an impressive series of compelling and intensely personal theatrical monologues he developed with director David Ford and debuted at San Francisco’s solo show hub, Marsh.
Not a Genuine Black Man, his 2004 play about growing up in one of the first black families in the then-all-white suburb of San Leandro, has become the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history. He has since turned it into a book and collaborated with Rob Reiner to make it a TV show.
Copeland’s other shows include The Waiting Period, a powerful track about suicidal depression; The Scion, an investigation of privilege inspired by the true story of a murderous sausage factory owner; and “The Jewelry Box,” a Christmas story about trying to make money to buy his mother a Christmas present at age 6. He is now working on his first full cast play, commissioned by the San Francisco Playhouse.
Like so many other productions, “Oma & Ich” was also delayed by the pandemic. It was originally scheduled to open at the Marsh in April 2020. The preview finally started on September 9th and will officially open on October 8th.
“This play is about what it really means to be a parent,” says Copeland. “The responsibility that comes with it, but also the insight that you have to be aware of when you help shape these young lives. Especially children dealing with trauma need special care because they will act out. how do you keep your patience As a parent, how do you know what you are willing and not willing to take? How do you have that extra compassion you need to have to understand what they are dealing with? Maybe it’s parental paranoia, but we all worry about screwing up our kids for life.”
He adds with a laugh: “And eventually we’ll all do it anyway.”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘GRANDMA & ME’
By Brian Copeland, presented by The Marsh
Through: 22 Oct
Where: The Swamp, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$35; www.themarsh.org