In his solo show at the Marsh Theater, Not a Genuine Black Man, Brian Copeland told the story of moving with his African American family in the 1970s to San Leandro, named one of the most racist suburbs in the United States. Not a Genuine Black Man had a seven-year run at the Marsh, the longest running solo show in San Francisco.
Now Copeland, a writer and comedian, who has a show on KGO radio and hosts a TV show on ABC in San Francisco, returns to the Marsh with The Waiting Period, about a subject he touched on in Not a Genuine Black Man -- suicidal depression. The show is a look at a 10-day period in his life, the time required by state law, before he could get his hands on the gun he'd bought to end his own life.
Copeland sat down with us to talk about ending the stigma about depression, copying Norman Lear, and using humor to talk about serious subjects.
What made you decide this was a story you wanted to do on stage?
I'd been thinking about doing something on depression for some time. It's touched on in Not a Genuine Black Man. People have said to me over the years that they wish I would have gone into more depth because so many people suffer from depression. I thought maybe one day I will. Then about four years ago I went through this really bad bout that became the subject of the show. Then a year and a half ago I started to write it and sketch out notes. I wrote it as prose first because it's going to be a book. Once I had a couple of chapters, I went to director David Ford, I showed him what I had and he said, "Yeah, let's do it."
I had a couple of starts and stops, and I got apprehensive. What made me plow all the way thorugh was there's a 15-year-old kid, and I'm very close with his family. January of last year, this kid laid down on the railroad tracks in front of a train and I thought, "OK, now I have to do this. All these people who are hurting, kids especially, who don't say anything, need to know it's OK. Maybe if he can talk about it, I can talk about it."
What was the apprehension about doing it?
It's the last stigmatized disease. It's like you've got this scarlet D you're walking around with. If you have it, people look at you differently. I would write it and put it down, and the process was a lot slower than the process with Genuine because Genuine was so far in the past, but there will still scabs on this wound.
How do you think about presenting a show like this and making it entertainment?
The same way I did it with Genuine. Genuine was about housing discrimination, racism, being an outsider, and with elements of suicidal depression thrown in. On paper that doesn't sound like an entertaining show, but what I did was, I copied Norman Lear. I sat down and watched the first couple of seasons of All in the Family to get his rhythms because remember he'd be really funny, and then Edith got raped. Really, really funny on Maude, and then she had an abortion. You can address any subject if you do it with humor. He came out to Genuine in L.A. and he said, "I love what you're doing," and I said, "Well, I'm doing you." He said, "You nailed it."
The way I describe it is I dig a great big hole and right before I get to China, I say something funny, and I pull you out so you stay with me for the ride.
What was the hardest thing about doing this show?
My kids went through this battle with me. Because when you're depressed, the whole family is depressed. My daughter Carolyn, who really ends up being the heroine of this piece, she saw Genuine, I think, a hundred and something times. She came with me on Broadway, and she stage-managed sometimes and was an assistant some places. Genuine was a different show for her because it was so far removed. "This is what happened to dad when he was a kid, and when I was too young to know what was going on." But they had a front row seat to this one. They were right there. I had some apprehensions about that, and I talked to them and said, "Can I tell this story? I think it's going to help some people." I'm protecting their privacy as best I can. I said, "If you don't want me to do this, I won't do this." And all three of them said if it will help some people, please do it.
What's the biggest misconception people have about depression?
That you can just shake it off. It's a disease. It really is. There are different levels of it, but there's something in your brain that just isn't firing right sometimes. There's some chemical you're not getting. I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, but there are so many different explanations and theories about why it affects people the way it does and why some people respond to medications and others don't.
I think people need to understand that number one, it's not something you have any control over, and number two, it's not something you should be ashamed of. That's something I'm trying to get out there -- if I had cancer, I wouldn't be ashamed, so why in the world are people ashamed or embarrassed that they suffer from this disease?
I did eight workshop performances in November and then I did a few benefit shows in Walnut Creek. Some people I've known for years, they feel free to come up to me now and say, "I'm bipolar." A friend I've known for 20 years, I had no idea. At one point he was sitting in his studio apartment with his .38-caliber revolver on the kitchen table in front of him, contemplating.
The coolest thing so far is I got an e-mail from a woman who saw a workshop who said she's been married for 15 years and she suffers and her husband doesn't get it. She dragged him to see the show and on the way home he finally said her, "Let's talk. Tell me, is this what you go through?"
What pulls you out when you're depressed?
This last bout I had a moment of clarity -- you're not in your right mind. You're isolating and you're internalizing. You need to tell somebody. We figured out now I have a bad bout every nine years. People have different triggers. My triggers are loss. At the time of this story, I had a wife abandon our family, I had a car accident, I had major surgery, and I had the grandmother who raised me die suddenly. People ask how can you be depressed and not know it, well, there's a dimmer switch in this room and if I turn it down very slowly, you don't catch the dimming.
Anything else you want to add?
One of the things I touch on briefly is the racial element to suicidal depression. I did a lot of research, and it's fascinating because there's not much suicide in the African American community. However, homicide is through the roof. Whites commit suicide at rates twice as high as African Americans do. But African Americans die of homicide six times as often as whites do. But there's a theory that some of those homicides are actually suicides. They put themselves in dangerous situations because it's the same hopelessness and despair so instead of picking up the gun, just go and point it at the police officer and he'll take care of it. It's not discussed in the African American community, and it needs to be.
The Waiting Period opens Saturday at 5 p.m. Saturday (and continues through March 24) at the Marsh Theater, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. Admission is $20-$50.