Brian Copeland’s new solo show “Grandma & Me” is subtitled “An Ode to Single Parents,” and that’s a topic he knows well.
“My sisters and I waited years to clear my grandmother’s stuff out,” Copeland says. “When she passed, it was so emotional for us, because she’s the one who raised us.”
And, as Copeland notes, that was no ordinary feat.
“My mom died when I was 14,” he explains. “There were five of us, and my youngest sister was 1 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, and then we lost her. So it was super, super emotional for us to clear out her things. My sister found the document from Alameda County that granted her guardianship of the five of us. I looked at that document, and all of a sudden it hit me, the enormity of what it was that she did. Here was this 57-year-old woman with a Jim Crow Birmingham education who had lost her only child, taking on five kids ranging in age from 1 to 14 all by herself.”
Decades later, Copeland would get some sense of what she went through firsthand.
“In 2001, I went through a divorce and I ended up with primary custody of my three,” he recalls. “They were in first grade, fifth grade and seventh grade. Their mom had been doing all the back-to-school stuff and all of the day-to-day things, because I was doing ‘Mornings on 2’ at the time. And if I wasn’t doing that, I was on the road with Aretha Franklin or Smokey Robinson or somebody, or I was home sleeping. Then suddenly when I got primary custody, it was all on me.”
It wasn’t until he was looking at that guardianship document that the connection really clicked for him and became the inspiration for this show.
“What I decided to do with this is to look at the lessons that I learned from what Grandma did during that first year that she had us and the first year that I had my three,” Copeland says. “Because the first year was the toughest year. When Grandma had us, we were all in shock and in horrible pain after losing our mother. And when I had my three, they were in all this pain from going through this divorce.”
A longtime comedian and TV talk-show host, Copeland has become known for an impressive string of captivating and highly personal theatrical monologues that he’s developed with director David Ford and debuted at San Francisco solo show hub the Marsh.
“Not a Genuine Black Man,” his 2004 piece about growing up in one of the first Black families in what was then the all-white suburb San Leandro, became the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history. He has since adapted it into a book and has been working with Rob Reiner to turn it into a TV show.
Copeland’s other shows include “The Waiting Period,” a powerful piece about suicidal depression; “The Scion,” an examination of privilege inspired by the true story of a murderous sausage factory owner; and “The Jewelry Box,” a holiday story about trying to earn money to buy his mother a Christmas present at the age of 6. Now he’s working on his first full-cast play, commissioned by San Francisco Playhouse.
Like so many other productions, “Grandma & Me” was delayed by the pandemic. It was originally scheduled to open at the Marsh in April 2020. It finally started previews on September 9 and officially opens Oct. 8.
“What this play is exploring is what it truly means to be a parent,” Copeland says. “The responsibility that comes along with it, but also the insight that you need to be conscious of when you are responsible for shaping these young lives. Especially children who are dealing with trauma, they need special care, because they’re going to act out. How do you keep your patience? How do you know, as a parent, what you’re willing to take and what you’re not? How do you have that extra compassion that you have to have to understand what they’re dealing with? Maybe it’s parental paranoia, but we all worry about screwing our kids up for life.”
He adds with a laugh: “And at some point, we all do anyway.”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘GRANDMA & ME’
By Brian Copeland, presented by The Marsh
Through: Oct. 22
Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$35; www.themarsh.org