Brian Copeland: A Genuine Christmas Genius
by Barry David Horwitz
Everyone knows that Brian Copeland, famed for his “Not a Genuine Black Man” solo show that has toured the country and played for ten years in San Francisco, is our master story-teller. His gift to audiences during the holidays, “The Jewelry Box,” offers a treasure chest of wit, warmth, and wisdom, currently overflowing the black box stage at The Marsh on Valencia.
Every word counts in Copeland’s masterful 70 minute show about his childhood in Oakland, when the popular KGO radio host was a wee tyke of six years old. Copeland recalls lush details about his practical southern grandma, his fastidious mom, his threatening father, and the neighbors, landlords, and street corner men of his East Bay youth.
Copeland takes us back to the White Front stores in Oakland in the 70s, where his family goes holiday shopping, and he spies a spiffy jewelry box for his mom, on sale for $11.97. Brian, the six year old, decides to find the money to buy the box for his elegant Mama. Copeland weaves them all into a gem of a heartwarming show. Copeland has created an instant classic, an American-style “Christmas Carol”—that will last for many years.
His Grandma suggests he work for the money, so starts a brilliant adventure, in which the little boy puts on his suit and scours the “Help Wanted” ads to earn the money. Copeland unifies childhood memory and adult insight, taking us back to Christmas Past, when a small child has to struggle between the desire to please his refined mother, and his fear of a scary father.
There’s lots of laughter in “The Jewelry Box.” On his way to “find a job,” two men, drinking on an Oakland street, are debating the year of the Helsinki Olympics—1952 or 1956? They send pint-sized Brian to the Library to find the answer. He’s all dressed in a smart blue suit, and they call him “Mr. President.”
He tries to get a job from a genial car salesman on Broadway, part of a funny and moving journey into unknown territory. Copeland presents the story of that journey so wittily and so compassionately that he gets into our hearts. “The Jewelry Box” surpasses gold or diamonds: it’s a story of childhood and adult discoveries. Precocious, endearing, and affable, little Brian finds answers to adult questions in “The Jewelry Box.”
Along the way, Copeland brilliantly inhabits many people’s voices and lives. He takes us back to the family’s 1968 Pontiac LeMans, that had no baby seats–but the baby still survives. He becomes the disabled boy next door, and his mother, too—who is unable to pay the rent, so the landlord takes her door off its hinges!
We witness unbelievable acts of charity by Grandma, who works hard as a cook at a Senior home, but shares with her neighbor in need. The mom, the dad, the sisters, the artful teacher, and many others spring forth in a cornucopia of characters. All of them vivid and engaging and fun.
His Miss Kelsey, the Teacher’s Aid, finds out what little Brian needs. Grandma is practical in her southern ways, but another Gramma is more selfish than any kid. And Sylvester, the hopeless father, emerges as angry and sad. Some of us recognize the characters from “Not a Genuine Black Man,” but here they are focused on one point: a child is trying to fathom this contradictory world.
Brian Copeland wakes us up to what children have to deal with, when he goes to work with Grandma at the Old Folks’ home, which smells like mothballs and ammonia. He works at setting up trays, like the prodigy that he was, unknown to himself.
Copeland has created a Child’s Christmas in Oakland. As a super-storyteller, he inhabits all the roles. If he can survive those youthful years, and emerge with humor and wit and love, we can, too. I, for one, will never forget what the young Brian understands at the end, a realization that comes from that $11.97 jewelry box. Unforgettable. Hilarious. Inspiring.
“The Jewelry Box”: written and performed by Brian Copeland, directed by David Ford, lighting and sound by Erick Blazeski, at The Marsh, San Francisco, through Saturday, December 23, 2017. Info: themarsh.org
Cast: Brian Copeland