Brian Copeland zeroes in on single parenting in Grandma & Me

Copeland 3
ABOVE: The Marsh presents Brian Copeland’s Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents, the new solo show by the award-winning playwright and performer. Photo by Marcus L. Jackson Photography BELOW: Copeland and his grandmother, Lena Mae Arbee. Photo by Sherry Kamhi

You’d think that after the gargantuan success of his previous solo show, Not a Genuine Black Man (the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history), and his very personal The Waiting Period, that Brian Copeland might not have more life story to mine.

That would be an incorrect assumption.

The ever-appealing Copeland has a new biographical solo show running at The Marsh San Francisco. Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents runs parallel tracks in Copeland’s life, both about the pressures of single parenting. The first is from Copeland’s childhood. His mother died when he was 15, leaving him and his four younger sisters (the youngest was a year old) in the care of their grandmother, who had been like a co-parent with his mother after his father’s departure when Copeland was young.

The other track involves Copeland and his own three kids (elementary and middle school age) and how he became a single parent when he and his wife divorced in 2001. Suddenly, he found a whole new awareness of what it cost his grandmother – emotionally, physically, financially – to raise five children by herself.

The best parts of this nearly two-hour show are when Copeland, working again with director David Ford, really digs deep into the heavy, unrelenting and often thankless responsibility of single parenting. Copeland admits that as a 15-year-old, he was an asshole and treated his grandmother shabbily, just as his oldest child follows suit in his teen years, but younger and older Brian come to a deep appreciation of everything Lena Mae Arbee, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, did for him and his sisters.

Copeland 2

That’s what’s moving about this show, and something that Copeland does really well is express his gratitude for not only his grandmother and mother but also for the people in his own life who proved pivotal in his own (eventually) successful transition to single parenthood (many of them were in attendance at the show’s Saturday opening night performance).

There’s also a sitcom smoothness to this show that keeps it from being as emotionally rewarding as it might be. Copeland, who has also worked as a stand-up comic, leans heavily into dad joke territory, and his foot-stomping, tantrum-throwing teenage re-creations grow wearying (just as they do in real life). In a way, Copeland is giving us too much information. He’s so eager to tell the two big stories of his childhood and his adulthood that the light he’s shining is so bright it washes out the people and the relationships. His audience is more capable than he realizes of making connections and sitting with the heavier elements of his story.

There are moments when Grandma & Me verges on the sentimental or sappy, but Copeland and director Ford mostly skirt them, and in the end this is a show that overflows with love. Every parent should be so lucky to have a child who pays such beautiful tribute as Copeland does for his grandmother.

Brian Copeland’s Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents continues an extended run through Nov. 19 at The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are on a sliding scale $25-$35 or $50 and $100 reserved. Running time: about 2 hours (with a 10-minute intermission). Call 415-282-3044 or visit

Brian Copeland enters a compelling Period

Brian Copeland 2
Comedian, author and TV personality Brian Copeland wrote and starred in one of San Francisco’s longest-running solo shows of all time. He’s back with a new show, The Waiting Period, which takes his art in a powerful new direction. Photo by Joan Marcus

There’s nothing unusual about the following statement: Brian Copeland is a funny, funny man. He has proved that time and time again over the course of his stand-up career and his TV work. We started to see more of Copeland in his extraordinarily successful solo show Not a Genuine Black Man, which ran for more than 700 performances then became a book. Though about something serious – the extreme racism of San Leandro in the 1970s – the show offered abundant laughter and gave audiences the unique experience of dealing with real-world problems in a funny and theatrical way.

Copeland takes that notion a step further with his new solo work, The Waiting Period. Like his previous show, this one is co-developed and directed by David Ford, and it has sprung to life at The Marsh in San Francisco. But unlike his previous outing, this is no comedy. Far from it.

Of course there are laughs in this 70-minute one-act. How could there not be with Copeland writing and performing it? But this is a very different experience because it is driven by a very clear agenda. The Waiting Period is about the disease known as depression and about how important it is for people suffering from depression to reach out to someone, anyone, and keep a connection to life. He dedicates the show to Colton L. Fink, a 15-year-old who lost that connection and took his own life.

The waiting period of the show’s title is the state-mandated 10 days before you can purchase a handgun. We know this because, as Copeland tells us, he was intending to spend about $400 on a gun he intended to use only once. On himself. In this darkest of dark times, Copeland was dealing with the effects of serious injuries sustained in a car accident that happened around the time his wife left him and their three children with no real reason.

Brian Copeland BW002

Lost in hopelessness, Copeland visits a gun dealership, where, in spite of his bleak state of mind, he finds humor in the whole enterprise. He sees posters on the wall of bikini-clad ladies holding firearms trying hard to look sexy and lethal. “I’ve been married twice,” he says. “They were either lethal or sexy. Never both.” Or in that moment when he’s holding the revolver, he senses it’s a “little black steel penis extender…not everyone can afford a Corvette.”

With pathos and heart, Copeland conveys to his audience the helplessness of depression and the disease of it. At one point, he’s standing outside of himself, the healthy Brian attempting to “slap the shit” out of depressed Brian. But the healthy self has to concede that, “He can’t hear us. He’s sick.” The power and emotion Copeland and Ford have invested in this story elevate it above your average night out at the theater.

This is an entertaining, intriguing show to be sure. But you know you’re seeing something important as Copeland slowly begins re-connecting to life, most notably when he goes to speak at a local high school where he recognizes an overachieving but depressed teenager. The Waiting Period is ultimately as life-affirming a show as you could hope to see. There’s an especially nice touch toward the end as Copeland, coming into the light and feeling hope trickle in, is surrounded by the sound of happiness, and it sounds like a trumpet playing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”


Brian Copeland’s The Waiting Period continues an extended run through Dec. 8 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 415-282-3055 or visit