Brian Copeland: A Genuine Christmas Gem!
by Barry David Horwitz
Brian Copeland, famed for his “Not a Genuine Black Man” solo show, is our master story-teller. His gift to audiences during the holidays, “The Jewelry Box,” offers a treasure chest of wit, warmth, and wisdom, now online from San Francisco Playhouse.
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 acts all the roles: his practical southern grandma, his fastidious mom, and his threatening father—as well as neighbors, landlords, and street corner men in East Oakland. A unique achievement.
Copeland embodies them all–the cranky landlord, the exploited neighbors who cannot pay rent, two Granmas–one wise, one mean, Mama, sisters, car dealers, and an angry Dad. He presents a brilliant array of lovable characters–with warmth and compassion.
Copeland weaves them all into a heartwarming show, creating an instant classic, an American “Christmas Carol” that celebrates the lives of three women who loved the child.
Copeland takes us back to the White Front store in Oakland in the 70s, where he goes with careful, proper Mom Carolyn to gawk at luxuries they cannot afford. Little Brian spies a spiffy jewelry box for his mom, on sale for $11.97. At six years old, Brian learns from Granma he will have to earn money to buy the box for his elegant Mama. But we are hypnotized by his wit and charm.
Brilliantly channeling his boyhood, young Brian puts on his blue suit and scours the “Help Wanted.” Copeland melds childhood memory and adult insight, he struggles between pleasing his refined mother, and fear of a scary father.
On his way to “find a job,” two men, drinking on an Oakland street, are debating the year of the Helsinki Olympics. 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,” evoking our admiration and love, too.
He tries to get a little job from a genial car salesman on Broadway, part of his funny and moving journey. Copeland presents the story so wittily, with childhood mannerisms and revelations, that he gets into our hearts. “The Jewelry Box” surpasses gold or diamonds: it’s a story of childhood discoveries. Precocious, endearing, and affable, little Brian finds answers to adult questions in “The Jewelry Box.”
We witness noble acts of charity by Grandma, who works hard as a cook at a Senior home, but shares with her neighbor in need, after the landlord takes their door off its hinges! The mom, the dad, the sisters, the artful Teacher’s Aide–all spring forth from a cornucopia of vivid, engaging characters.
Brian Copeland wakes us up to a child’s point of view, 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 our super-storyteller, he inhabits all the roles. If he can survive those youthful years, and emerge with humor and love, we can, too. I, for one, will never forget young Brian’s insights on gifts, giving, and generosity. Unforgettable. Hilarious. Inspiring.
“The Jewelry Box” – written & performed by Brian Copeland, directed by David Ford, at San Francisco Playhouse–Streaming at SF Playhouse – through December 25, 2020.
Cast: Brian Copeland (many roles)
Banner Photo by Patti Meyer