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Not a Genuine Black Man

Brian Copeland's solo piece is more successful as autobiography than as an examination of racial identity. logo
Brian Copeland in Not a Genuine Black Man
Photo © Joan Marcus
In his influential essay "On National Culture," Frantz Fanon observed that white critics have questioned the authenticity of bebop because they were attracted to the despairing images of black people in jazz. Performer Brian Copeland learned firsthand how the demand for "authenticity" can have racist undertones. While he was hosting his Bay Area radio program, one disgruntled listener insulted him with a phrase that would become the title of his show, Not a Genuine Black Man. This solo performance at the DR2 asks what the phrase means, who qualifies for the distinction of "genuine black man," and why many African Americans are buying into the concept. The questions Copeland asks are meaningful and the stories he tells to illustrate them are engaging, even if his answers fall short of the mark.

When the Copeland family bought a house in San Leandro, they thought they were moving to the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, but they had actually chosen to live in a place that the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing called "a racist bastion of white supremacy." Brian was a child at the time of the move, and his mother insisted that he go to the park and introduce himself to the boys of the neighborhood. With a baseball bat and glove in hand, he did just that, only to find himself being chased across the city limits by a group of racist thugs. Eventually, he found a cop, who frisked him in a ritual that he wryly described as a baptism for "a black man in our society."

If being a real African American means experiencing institutionalized bigotry, Copeland's blackness is beyond dispute, but he shows us that even this definition falls short. He tells a bitterly funny anecdote about a prominent black lawyer who ruined his career by making up a story about his oppression. Apparently, the man was too embarrassed to admit that he'd had a peaceful upbringing in Birmingham, a place that the national media had dubbed "Bombingham." Copeland soon realized that the definition of "real" blackness had less to do with shared experience than negative stereotypes, noting that his abusive father's blackness was never questioned.

The show falters when Copeland comments on black popular culture, making stale jokes about Ebonics ("When I hear the word 'ax,' I think of it as a noun") to banal critiques of hip-hop ("rhyming about bitches and ho's is not music"). At one point, he delivers a string of mock-apologies for bearing all of his children "into wedlock," for wanting to live in a good neighborhood, for not wanting to go to prison because he looks "so shitty in an orange jumpsuit," and for caring "more about a 401k than a 187 pc." It becomes unclear whether he's critiquing the images themselves or the people whom he believes embodies them, and it's rather off-putting that these broad caricatures of black culture are being presented to a predominantly white audience.

Some of the most engaging segments of Not a Genuine Black Man aren't concerned with race; instead, they delve into Copeland's struggle with depression, his hospitalization, and his family life. These sidebars do not distract from the main theme; they're appropriate, since this show rightly argues that individualism trumps racial identity. If anything, Copeland should develop this sort of autobiographical material more thoroughly.

Copeland has a comedian's tendency to indicate his punchlines and a radio announcer's propensity for vocal clarity over spontaneous emotion. Director Bob Balaban fails to rein in these habits, and David Hines's lighting -- which dims before every serious monologue -- only makes the production seem more manipulative. Still, when Copeland tells his story with simplicity, sincerity, and compassion, this show is a very worthwhile experience.

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