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Not a Genuine Black Man

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

"When I hear the word 'axe,' I think of it as a noun." Some of us may accept sloppy speaking as an unfortunate way of life. But for Brian Copeland, the chronic mispronunciation of that one word is a devastating symptom of the problems crippling the culture to which he ostensibly belongs, but can't bear to call his own.

We learn early on in Copeland's probing stage memoir, Not a Genuine Black Man, which just opened at the DR2 Theatre, that this is one black man who pronounces the word "ask," and he's quite proud of it, thank you. He's Catholic. He believes in personal responsibility. He rejects using double negatives in conversation and doing and dealing drugs. And, oh yes, he raises the three children he fathered - with their mother, the (white) woman he married.

It's to Copeland's great sadness - and ours - that these things have come to define race for so many. They certainly led one irate listener to Copeland's radio show to write him and claim he wasn't "a genuine black man," presumably because he led a privileged life free of the weight of anger and hate that "true" black people must face. (However, he quips, "Cops think I'm black. Cab drivers think I'm black.")

So Not a Genuine Black Man becomes a blank canvas on which Copeland can demonstrate that race is an issue better painted in vivid shades of grey than in black and white. Along the way, he proves himself only an intermittently successful artist, though the vistas he ends up creating are engrossing nonetheless.

His story began with his mother moving his family from Birmingham, Alabama, to San Leandro, California, when he was eight. San Leandro was considered, at the time (the early 1970s), to be one of the most racist suburbs in the country, but his mother was determined that they all lead a good life, even if the going was initially rough. And it was.

Copeland was accosted by police when he was eight, for little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. White children spouted epithets they heard from their parents as if they were natural parts of speech. The white neighbors and administrators at Copeland's apartment complex began a campaign, both legal and otherwise, to force out Copeland's family.

His anecdotes alternate between the past and the present, demonstrating how those early experiences have resonated through his life, not always in positive ways. (Even his young son encountered racism; he himself suffered depression and even a suicide attempt as indirect results.) From these stories emerge dual portraits of a man who's known the anguish and pain of being a "genuine black man," but hasn't let them dampen his intelligence or civility, and his fiercely determined mother who instilled in him the values to make that possible.

She's the most compelling character Copeland creates, as she too would never be considered a "genuine black woman": She lied about hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, among other things. But she was for her son an inspiring role model who shaped his life more positively than his often-absent, abusive father, or the black lawyer handling the eviction case who lied about his personal history to make himself more authentic to the common black man. When Copeland wonders what being black really means, these examples don't spring to mind.

Both Copeland and director Bob Balaban intelligently and consistently develop the mutability of racial perception into the show's central concern. What's less effective is Copeland's delivery: His characters all sound the same (he admits at one point he can't do six people in a scene together, though he has enough trouble with two); and too often, his stand-up comedy experience bleeds through his performance and gives many scenes the overly polished, blinding slickness of "bits" rather than organic ideas. Copeland has no trouble injecting comedy into the proceedings - the show is just as funny as it is moving, which is saying something - but doesn't need the winking excess.

But when Copeland plays it straight, he makes the show as sober and serious a plea for racial tolerance as you'll find, even if it's one that takes everyone to task for eroding the advances of the Civil Rights Movement. "Forgive me for wanting more, not less," Copeland cries near the end of the show, assessing the success he's achieved that so many others have allowed to elude them. This moment, like so many in Not a Genuine Black Man, reminds us that humanity is more than merely skin deep.

Not a Genuine Black Man
Through July 30
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, with no intermission
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street (At 20 Union Square East)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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