Brian Copeland zeroes in on single parenting in Grandma & Me

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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.

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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

Catching up with Colette & Cyrano

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Lorri Holt stars in and co-wrote Colette Uncesnored, the story of the infamous French novelist’s life as a writer, a woman, a pioneer for social change and a lover. The solo show runs through May 14 at The Marsh San Francisco. Photo by David Allen Below: Le Bret (Michael Gene Sullivan, left) warns Cyrano (J. Anthony Crane) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of Cyrano, running through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Kevin Berne

So many shows, so little time!

Herewith, a petite voyage to France, first to check in with the writer Colette and then to catch up with the swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac. I reviewed both Colette Uncensored at The Marsh, a solo show starring and co-written by Lorri Holt (with Zack Rogow, and Cyrano, a new adaptation of Rostand’s tale at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here is a bit of the Colette Uncensored review:

There’s a definite “ooh la la” factor to Colette’s story, and Holt can flirt with and tease an audience like a true Parisian. But this is less a gossipy tale and more an evolutionary one. Colette thrived in the Belle Epoque period in which the bohemians sought freedom in all its forms (and suffered all the consequences).
At a certain point in her life, she delights that her reputation as a writer has overtaken her reputation as a scandal magnet, and by the time Paris is overtaken by the Nazis, we’ve seen her as a naive young wife, a successful actress, a journalist and a successful novelist. Through it all, she keeps coming back to a central question: “Is pleasure the same thing as happiness?”

Read the full review here.

Lorri Holt and Zack Rogow’s Colette Uncensored continues through May 14 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-282-3055 or visit

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And here is a peek a the Cyrano review:

There’s a robust charm to director Robert Kelley’s production in the first act, when Cyrano is surrounded by a noisy crowd of soldiers, actors, friends and antagonists. The second act, however, loses steam in a major way as the lively comedy and masterful swordplay (fight direction by Jonathan Rider) gives way to less exciting romance, a detour into battle and then a 15-year time jump into outright tragedy.
At nearly three hours, this “Cyrano” is at least 20 minutes too long and has a much easier time bearing the laughs and action of the first act than it does the increasingly sad drama of the second.

Read the full review here.

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner, continues in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$80. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Brian Copeland enters a compelling Period

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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.

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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

Review: `Towle’s Hill’


The Marsh is delving into theater of a whole new vintage these days.

Best known as a breeding ground for great solo shows, The Marsh usually pairs enterprising writer/performers with directors who know the ins and outs of one-person shows.

For one of its latest projects, The Marsh followed that model but with a twist. The family-owned Sonoma winery Gundlach Bundschu was about to celebrate its 150th anniversary and wanted to commission a play about the family and the winery.

The task of writing and performing the show fell to Oakland’s Mark Kenward, who developed the piece with director David Ford, and the finished product, Towle’s Hill, hit the road.

Beginning last May, Towle’s Hill toured the country and has now settled into a regular Friday-night slot at The Marsh.

An outsider might look at this project and think, “Oh, no! The Marsh has become a corporate shill!” But it’s not really like that. Yes, a successful winery spent some money to create a show, but the show itself is very much a Marsh product and went through the same developmental process that all Marsh shows follow.

Yes, you may leave the Towle’s Hill wanting to a) visit Rhinefarm, the 320-acre estate vineyard on the southwesterly slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains and b) buy cases and cases of their wine. But you also leave having experienced a genuinely enjoyable evening of theater.

OK, there’s about 45 minutes of theater followed by a wine tasting of Gundlach Bundschu wines, so it’s what you might call a very complete experience.

Back in the early, heady days of Gundlach Bundschu – before the Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed a million gallons of wine and the reigning motto was “Parties, poetry, prosperity” – the family would throw lavish parties on the vineyard in tribute to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and patron saint of theater.

So it’s only appropriate that we celebrate the estate’s sesquicentennial in a theatrical way.

In Towle’s Hill, Kenward plays Towle Bundschu, the third generation of the family to farm the land. The year is 1974, a decisive moment in the family’s history because after years of selling grapes to other wineries and after lean years of cattle and sheep ranching, pear farming, hay growing, sheep, Towle’s son, Jim, wants to start bottling wine under the old family label.

But Towle doesn’t know quite what to think about that. He has come close to selling the whole place to make it a University of California, Berkeley campus or a golf course. There’s a plot of land he owns on a little nearby lake where he envisions building a home and spending his days not seeing to every little detail on a big, difficult farm subject to fires and black frost.

But his son Jim has a passion about re-planting the entire vineyard, starting over and becoming a viable vintner.

Before he makes his decision, Towle takes us through his family history and gives us an appreciation for the legacy of the past and the hope for the future in each glass of wine that finds its way to our table.

Kenward is a warm, wonderful storyteller who establishes an instant rapport with his audience. Outfitted in a baseball cap and work clothes, Kenward makes a believable farmer and an even more believable dad who appreciates that his son, like himself, his father, his grandfather and great grandfather before him, truly cares about this beautiful stretch of land.

When it comes right down to it, Towle’s Hill is really about family more than wine, and that makes for quite an intoxicating show.

So after Kenward takes his well-earned bows and the audience heads to the bar in the rear of the theater, the enthusiasm for the wine is genuine. It’s not just wine we’re tasting but history in those glasses.

Towle’s Hill does something we always want theater to do and that is make us more conscious. When we sip the wine, we do it with knowledge and with appreciation, so it’s that much tastier. And it is quite tasty. On a recent Friday the wines on offer were chardonnay, pinot and merlot.

Like the play itself, the wines were crisp, rich and eminently satisfying.

Towle’s Hill is at 8 p.m. Fridays through Nov. 21 (no show Oct. 31) at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50 on a sliding scale. Theater Dogs readers can get $15 tickets if you mention the code word: “tasting.” Call 800-838-3006 or visit