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Revisiting racism

Brian Copeland’s one-person show, â€Å"Not a Genuine Black Man,” recalls the author/performer’s childhood in a notoriously racist San Francisco suburb

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“It’s not how you talk, not how you dress, not what kind of music you listen to … but people just don’t get it,” says comedian, author, actor and talk show host Brian Copeland. “They think it’s a show that tells you how to act white.”

The confusion centers around the nature of, and meaning behind, Copeland’s one-person autobiographical play, “Not a Genuine Black Man,” which opens at the Broadway Center’s Theater on the Square Friday.

Copeland drew the title from an unfriendly comment made by a dissatisfied listener of Copeland’s San Francisco-based radio program. The listener, who identified himself as a member of the black community, declared that Brian Copeland, on the other hand, was “not a genuine black man.”

Copeland wasn’t sure what the listener meant, and the caller didn’t elaborate. But the sentiment behind the comment wasn’t all that hard to guess.

“It happens in every single culture,” Copland explains. There are always members of an ethnic group, “people who decide that they are the arbiters of what is ethnicity and what isn’t”

But the “ethnic arbiter” who questioned Copeland’s identity as a black man got the comedian/talk show host thinking … and writing. “Not a Genuine Black Man” represents Brian Copeland’s exploration of his identity and his memories of growing up as a member of one of the only black families in a suburb of San Francisco that, in the 1970s, was 99.9 percent white — and which showed every sign of remaining so.

“It’s about what it’s like to be different,” Copeland explains of the play that he wrote and first performed in San Francisco. Intended to run for six weeks, it became the longest running one-man show in the city’s history. It has since evolved into a book, and Copeland is collaborating with friend and filmmaker Rob Reiner on a television series based on the play.

(Copeland also appears in Reiner’s just-released film, “The Bucket List,” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.)

“Not a Genuine Black Man,” the stage version, begins much as one of Copeland’s standup routines might. “It’s basically my own opening act,” he explains of the introductory monologue. “Then, it changes to a play, and I play 31 characters over the course of that play … so most of it is nothing like standup. It’s a mixture of laughs and tears.”

Writing and performing the play has also given Copeland a chance to explore his life experience. “Until I wrote it, I felt alone,” Copeland admits, “alone in the universe.” As a child, Copeland had survived, in part, by developing strategies to avoid being noticed in his nearly all-white community. “I didn’t want to stand out.”

That experience, which he explores in the play, left him feeling isolated and depressed. But re-visiting such episodes and their effects has helped — and has even helped Copeland decide what a “genuine” black man is.

“It’s someone who is resilient,” he explains, “someone who is resilient enough to keep getting up.”

[Theatre on the Square, Friday, Jan. 18-Saturday, Jan. 19 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 20 3 p.m., $20-$34, 915 Broadway, Tacoma, 253.591.5894,]

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