Interview: Brian Copeland of GRANDMA & ME: AN ODE TO SINGLE PARENTS at The Marsh Shares His Experiences of Having Been on Both Sides of the Situation

The acclaimed actor-playwright's funny & touching new show runs live in San Francisco through October 22

By: Sep. 14, 2022
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Interview: Brian Copeland of GRANDMA & ME: AN ODE TO SINGLE PARENTS at The Marsh Shares His Experiences of Having Been on Both Sides of the Situation
Brian Copeland in Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents at The Marsh San Francisco
(photo by Marcus L. Jackson Photography)

For the first time in several years, award-winning playwright and actor Brian Copeland is back at The Marsh San Francisco with a new solo show utilizing his trademark blend of humor and pathos. Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents examines the issues of single parenting and asks what it truly means to be a father. When Copeland was an adolescent, his mother died suddenly and his grandmother, Lena Mae Arbee, took full custody of him and his four siblings. Roughly twenty years later, Copeland found himself in a similar situation after the dissolution of his marriage left him with custody of his three kids. His own struggles to become a single parent brought him a new respect for the sacrifices his grandmother made and the wisdom she brought to parenting. With both laughter and tears, Copeland takes a deep look, from both sides, at what children need and crave when a parent is lost, and all the agonizing, infuriating, encouraging, and above all helplessly loving acts that go into being a father.

Copeland has enjoyed a decades-long, multifaceted career, including twenty years as a standup comic headlining across the country and opening for icons like Smokey Robinson, Ringo Starr and Aretha Franklin. His extensive television credits include hosting KTVU's breakfast program Mornings on 2 and KGO's Emmy Award winning afternoon talk show 7Live. In 1995, KGO Radio premiered The Brian Copeland Show. With his unique blend of humor and riveting talk, the program was the most listened to program in its time slot. His first network TV special, Now Brian Copeland, premiered on NBC after Saturday Night Live in January 2015. Most recently, he has been hosting his own weekly podcast, Copeland's Corner, where he and a panel of comedians offer their takes on current hot topics.

And then, of course, there is his impressive theater career, including Not a Genuine Black Man, which is the longest-running solo show in Bay Area theatre history. Copeland is currently working with Rob Reiner on a script to turn the play into a TV show. His other theatrical works include The Waiting Period, a story of combatting depression; the critically-acclaimed Christmas classic, The Jewelry Box; and The Great American Sh*t Show, a collaboration with Charlie Varon featuring monologues on life in the Age of Trump.

I caught up with Copeland last week just as he was about to jump into tech rehearsals on an unseasonably hot afternoon. Despite the heat and hecticness of the day, Copeland was his usual unflappable, genial and endlessly entertaining self. If you ever have the good fortune to run into him at a party, he's definitely the guy you want to talk to. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What originally prompted you to create Grandma & Me?

Well, my sister and I were going through my grandmother's things after she had been gone for about seven years and in one of the boxes was the guardianship paper that she was granted of the five of us in 1979 when my mother died. We were ages 1 to 15, and I was the oldest. Grandma was 57 years old with a Jim Crow Birmingham education and took on five of us by herself. I didn't realize the enormity of what she had done til I saw that paper as an adult with three grown children I'd raised mostly by myself, but I was nowhere near 57. For her to do that, to take on five kids by herself, I thought "My God, what an accomplishment. How in the hell did she pull that off?!" And we all ended up okay, nobody ended up on drugs, nobody ended up in jail, we're all productive members of society. There are so many ways this could have gone sideways and somehow it didn't, and so that was the seed of it. I wanted to do kind of an emotional autopsy as it were to figure out exactly how she did what she did, as well as the lessons I learned from it 20+ years later when I was single dad to my three kids.

So the play has two timelines, 1980 and 2001. One of the major themes in the 1980 timeline is when you're 15 years old, you're a jerk, you know? It doesn't matter what a great kid you've been up to that point. I was literally an altar boy and a Boy Scout, and at that age I was still just a jerk. You're self-centered and because you've got hormones raging and everything, there's nothing left to teach you and anybody older than you is stupid. So that fact that Grandma's dealing with a toddler on one end and somebody who's behaving the way that I'm behaving on the other end, plus everything in between, and trying to keep me on the straight and narrow, it adds to the drama. It makes me have even more respect for her.

In 2001, I went through a divorce and ended up with custody of my three kids, who were in first, fifth and seventh grades at the time. So the play goes back and forth between the two timelines with me being on both sides of it - a hurting kid who's trying to process the pain and then an adult dealing with hurting kids who are trying to process the pain, and at the same time trying to keep my own act together.

I was not the primary caregiver when I was married to their mother. She was the one that got them up in the morning and got them to school. I was doing Mornings on 2 at the time, so I left the house at 3:30am. I'd pick 'em up from school and I was there if there was a parent-teacher conference or if the kids had a recital, but organizing play dates and packing lunches and chaperoning field trips? I didn't do that stuff, cause I was working. If I wasn't doing Mornings on 2, I was in Atlantic City opening for Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles. And then suddenly that all comes to a screeching halt, and I've gotta figure out how to make three breakfasts and three lunches at the same time.

So it goes from what sounds like the mundane parts of parenting into the depths of what it means to be a parent, and what it is that kids who find themselves in these traumatic situations where suddenly they are dealing with a single parent instead of an intact household, what it is that they need. And for me I would say 2001 is the year I became a father. I'd been a dad since my oldest was born on my 25th birthday, but I became a father during that year, dealing with all of their trauma and trying to put them back together again, the same as Grandma had to put us back together again.

What do you think that experience was like for your grandmother?

Grandma was born in 1921 in Jim Crow Birmingham, Alabama, and left as part of the second great African American migration from the Deep South to the North right after the second World War. She moved with her entire family, including my mother who was about two at the time, up to Akron, Ohio where I was born.

Something I've learned about African American people who grew up during that time and under those circumstances is that they don't quit, they don't give up. They just played whatever they were dealt, because that's how it was under Jim Crow. You put your head down, worked like a dog and made the best out of it, and so that's what it was like for her. My mother was her only child, and she died at the age of 36, suddenly of sarcoidosis. We didn't know what it was, it was misdiagnosed and then suddenly she was gone, and my father was not around.

Me in her situation? I might have curled up in a fetal position in bed with the covers over my head. And Grandma couldn't do that. She just put her head down and did what needed to be done. And I did not make it easy on her that first year. The childhood story line primarily takes place when I'm 15 and 16, and at that age, you're a disrespectful asshole, you just are.

What do you miss the most about your grandmother?

Her wisdom. There's so much stuff that I come across where it's like "Damn it, she was right!" There was a lot of "You'll see, one day you'll see!" from her. And those "one days" are comin' up all the time, you know? She's in every single play that I do. When I was writing the first one, Not a Genuine Black Man, I got the advice from my friend Rob Becker, who'd done Defending the Caveman, to read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces about the hero's journey. George Lucas used it as a blueprint for Star Wars so I did the same thing. As part of the hero's journey, there's always a wise elder who guides the hero through the battles, the war, the torment and helps the hero get to the other side. In Star Wars that's Obi-Wan Kenobi. When I was figuring out how I could use that in my play, it was immediately obvious that was Grandma, because she really was Obi-Wan. She was the wise elder up until the day she died.

What is your writing process when you're creating a new solo piece?

It's different with every show. The only show I ever did that came out as a fully formed baby, with a beginning and a middle and an end, was The Jewelry Box. The process that [director] David Ford and I usually use is I tell him I've got this idea of a show I want to do - [for example] about single parenting, how my grandma did it and how that informed what I did. Then I'll just start writing scenes and when I've got enough - and they're not in any kind of chronological order usually - then the story itself will start to form. Probably 40 to 50 percent of the scenes I've written won't be used, but then I'll write things around the 50 to 60 percent that I have left over and write what I call connective tissue so that it works [as a play].

You work typically combines humor with some pretty serious material. How do you establish the right balance between the two?

The analogy I use is that I like to dig a great big hole and then right before I get to the earth's core, I say something funny and pull you out of it. Before I started doing solo work, I did 20 years of standup, touring with Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole, plus I was a road comic working comedy clubs where it was all just about laughs. The thing that I found is that the drama makes the comedy funnier, and the comedy makes the drama heavier because there's such a contrast. If I'd just written Grandma & Me as a straight drama, the emotional depth and pain that I want the audience to feel in the parts that are painful would not be as effective without the humor to balance that and give the audience a chance to exhale a little bit. And by the same token, while straight jokes can be hilarious, there's something about that relief laughter that makes the comedy that much funnier than if it were just a comedy with no dramatic impact.

What was it like opening for icons like Smokey Robinson, Ringo Starr and Aretha Franklin? Was it a blast? Was it terrifying? Did you get to hang with them?

Depends on the star. There are some who would not acknowledge my existence. (I'm not gonna name names.) I mean, there was one icon I opened for who would stand in the wings next to me surrounded by her entourage and it was like I wasn't even there. I opened for her for a few months before she finally even said hello to me. Then you've got the complete reverse of that, Smokey Robinson. He is the nicest, sweetest, kindest, most gentle soul I've ever met in this world, which is why he's been able to write the amazing songs that he's written. I toured with him the longest and here's my favorite Smokey Robinson story. We were playing Constitution Hall and I'd bought this brand-new shirt to wear. I realized as I'm getting dressed that this shirt needs cufflinks, and I don't have any. So Smokey walks by my dressing room, sees me giving him this look of despair and goes, "What's going on?" I say, "I've got this new shirt and I don't have any cufflinks" and he goes, "Oh, come here!" and loans me a pair of these like 4-carat diamond-studded cufflinks to wear while I do my set. I killed, it was a great audience, and I'm just thinking to myself "This is surreal. I'm standing onstage at Constitution Hall wearing Smokey Robinson's cufflinks and they're laughing at stuff I thought of in my bedroom. And I'm a little Black boy from San Leandro, California!"

You've been doing your weekly Copeland's Corner podcast for two years now. You make it appear so easy and free-flowing as you talk about some really deep issues with your panel of comics. What goes into your preparation for the podcast to make it seem so effortless?

I hosted a show at KGO radio for 27 years and started doing "Headliners on the Headlines" the last twelve or thirteen years I was there, and I prep this exactly the same way. I spend about three hours going through a whole list of news sources and I look at what's trending on Twitter. I try to find the stories that make me go, "What?!" That's the main ingredient. Is this a story that I have an opinion about, something that if I was at a dinner party and I had read it, I would talk about with people? That's the kind of stuff I look for, things that I think are going to prompt a good conversation.

The reason comics are so good is that they're really smart. You know, people don't give comics that much credit because of what they do, thinking it's just joking around. But comics are really smart and insightful, and read a lot to know what's going on in the world. Whether they put it in their acts or not, they've all got a world view and they've all got an opinion on everything.

It's really fun, not hard work at all. I didn't expect it to go this long; it's kind of a lark. When I left KGO after having been there literally for most of my life, it was weird to see a news story and have something to say about it but have nobody to tell. I'd see something and it'd drive me crazy, and my daughter got tired of listening to me rant, so I said, "Goddammit, I'm gonna do a podcast!" That's how it came about.

As a performer and a writer, you've done so many different things - theatre, standup, TV, podcasts, mental health advocacy. Is there anything you haven't tackled yet that you'd really still like to have a go at?

There's two things that I really want to accomplish that I haven't yet, and they're both in the works. The main thing is seeing some of my work on the small/big screen. Rob Reiner's working to turn Not a Genuine Black Man into a TV show, so I've been working on a pilot script for him. Rob and I came up with what we think is a really unique way to present this story for streaming. So that's one thing.

The other one is that I'm a big crime fiction fan and have always wanted to create a crime fiction series. Jonathan Kellerman (who writes the Alex Delaware series) and I became friends, and he mentored me during the pandemic through writing my first crime fiction book, and it's being circulated to publishers now. My protagonist is an African American television investigative reporter, which hasn't been done. And his sister is San Francisco PD Homicide. They find themselves working together based on his stories or her cases. That's the idea of the series.

The first one is about somebody killing cops who've shot unarmed Black people and have not been punished for it. The name of the book is "Administrative Leave" cause that's what happens, they get administrative leave. If I'm able to sell this and it goes to a series, the second book is gonna be about "pretty missing white girl syndrome," how the media deals with the disappearances of women of color vs. Gabby Petito or Laci Peterson.

One thing that's always been important to me in everything I do is that I want it to be about something. I mean, not that there's anything wrong with just sheer entertainment, but I have to have a point. Everything that I write, that I present, I want to say something.

Well, I can't wait to read those books -

Me, either! [laughs]

- because I feel like I haven't read those stories before.

My hope is that the right publisher will say exactly that!

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Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents runs through November 19, 2022 with performances at 7:30pm Fridays and 5:00pm Saturdays at The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. For information or to order tickets visit www.themarsh.org.




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