“You are not a genuine black man,” a listener complains to San Francisco talkshow host Brian Copeland at the beginning of this one-man affair. Copeland, who admits he likes the Beach Boys and doesn’t “talk ghetto,” is charming and sometimes poignant. In the end, though, “Not a Genuine Black Man” is not a genuine play.
Autobiographical tale takes up where “A Raisin in the Sun” leaves off, with a likable 8-year-old moving to an all-white suburb. The time is 12 years later than in Lorraine Hansberry’s play, the place is Oakland rather than Chicago, and the tone is comic rather than dramatic.
But young Brian and his family (mother, grandmother and three younger sisters) walk straight into a wall of middle-class racism called San Leandro. Chased by a group of unruly teenagers, he takes refuge with a tall, blond cop in mirrored sunglasses — who, in a chilling passage, proceeds to “pat down” the boy. As Copeland puts it, he is “officially baptized as a black male in this society.”
Within months, Copeland faces an angry white mob; an eviction, which his mother successfully battles in court; and an abusive alcoholic father who turns up occasionally (staying just long enough to batter the boy and his mother).
Narrative jumps to adulthood, with Copeland detailing his suicide attempt in the garage, the engine running while a Rick Springfield CD plays in the stereo. “Definitely not black,” he notes.
Play premiered in San Francisco, where a six-week run was extended to almost two years, and it’s in development by Rob Reiner for HBO.
Surely “Genuine” must have played better on Copeland’s home turf than it does at the DR2. Part of the problem may have been the audience at the press preview attended, small and — for whatever it’s worth — almost totally white.
Copeland’s text, apparently influenced by his standup roots, includes scripted responses to aud reaction; when that reaction doesn’t come for the third or fourth time, Copeland begins to look mighty uncomfortable.
In the last half-hour, Copeland switches among his tales-in-progress as if someone were playing with the remote, hoping to finish up every thread simultaneously. Despite several gripping segments, “Genuine Black Man” doesn’t quite satisfy.