San Leandro, Calif. — ALMOST everything in this quiet Bay Area suburb reminds Brian Copeland of a story. Just drive around town with him for an hour or so: Story time is approximately once every 10 minutes.
Some are tales from his own life: the 41-year-old stand-up comedian, former TV weatherman, writer and San Francisco radio host has lived here for more than 30 years. Others are the stories that people have been telling him ever since he made San Leandro the centerpiece of his autobiographical one-man show, "Not a Genuine Black Man."
Copeland performs at San Francisco's the Marsh theater, where the show has played for more than 22 months, a record for the theater. He also performs at the Hayworth in Los Angeles through April 1 -- making Copeland as much of a fixture on Burbank-Oakland commuter flights as those little bags of peanuts.
And although the show is relatively new to L.A., Copeland says that in San Francisco, "Not a Genuine Black Man" has been bringing storytellers out of the woodwork, many who come up to him after the show with confessions as humorous, angry or heartbreaking as his own.
These days, San Leandro Mayor Shelia Young can boast that San Leandro is "the fourth-most-neighborhood-diverse city in the whole state," counting among its residents Koreans, Mexicans, Filipinos, whites and blacks. But such was not the case when the African American Copeland family came to San Leandro in 1972. Copeland was 8. At that time, San Leandro was 99.9% white; adjacent Oakland was 44% black.
"In 1972, the National Committee against Discrimination in Housing called San Leandro, Calif., 'a racist bastion of white supremacy,' " Copeland says near the beginning of his show. "CBS News and Newsweek magazine covered the story. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights conducted hearings. And then \o7we\f7 moved to town."
He acknowledges that the San Leandro story mirrors the institutionalized segregation of hundreds of towns across the nation during that period of American history, but he says audiences are surprised to find that type of prejudice in the liberal Bay Area, five years after the Summer of Love.
Copeland is full of San Leandro factoids: It is this city, not San Francisco, that is actually the home of Rice-A-Roni, he points out while traveling past the factory that cranks out the baffling pasta-rice combo advertised as "the San Francisco treat."
It's also the place where, as children, Copeland and his sister Tracie would walk down the street while adults in automobiles cruised alongside them, leaning out of windows, chanting the N-word. Just like his stage show, the Brian Copeland San Leandro Tour ricochets between the humorous and the horrifying.
The title of the show is borrowed from an irate African American radio listener who charged that Copeland's manner of speaking, as well as his taste for golf, made him something less than a "genuine" black American. This leads Copeland to a tongue-in-cheek self-examination: "I can't swim -- that's black ... I don't believe blacks should be paid reparations for slavery, but if they send me the check, I'll cash it. I'm confused, but I'm not crazy." But what is basically a stand-up routine is juxtaposed with the story of a journey into the depths of depression that led him to a suicide attempt at age 35.
"This is something that Brian and I worked really hard on, putting comedy next to really scary stuff," says David Ford, the show's director. "It was trying to find out how to let people have the experience of what is sort of terrifying in life, whatever that emotion of injustice is that just makes you feel like this is \o7wrong\f7 -- then give them a way out in the next breath."
He walked the line
"KEEP going, we're almost at the border," Copeland says excitedly as the car approaches the monument that separates Oakland and San Leandro. Today the street is lined with banners that read "Welcome" in half a dozen languages, but in 1972, the message was anything but that for blacks from Oakland.
"If you crossed over that line, you were asking for trouble," Copeland says. "It was nicknamed 'the Invisible Wall.' " The phrase became the title of a 1981 television documentary on San Leandro, which at that point was still, according to Copeland, predominantly white. The city's racial bias had already been the subject of a 1971 documentary, "The Suburban Wall," filmed shortly before the Copelands moved to town. Copeland provides links to view both documentaries on his website, www.briancopeland.com.