Brian Copeland’s new solo play Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents is finally here after two and a half years of pandemic-related delays, and it was well worth the wait. The beautifully unadorned production at The Marsh hits that sweet spot between funny and moving, and tells a tale not quite like anything I’ve seen onstage before. Or, rather, two tales. Copeland’s script intertwines two seminal years from his own life – 1979 when his grandmother was granted guardianship of him and his four siblings following the premature death of their 36-year-old mother to sarcoidosis, and 2001 when the dissolution of his marriage led to his assuming custody of his three young children.
Thus, we get two very different portraits of suddenly being thrust into single parenting from opposite sides of that dynamic. As he struggles to learn how to become a true parent for the first time, the full weight of what his grandmother had gone through and sacrificed gradually sinks in. Not to mention that she was 57 years old at the time, and she was taking on five children between the ages of 1 and 15 while dealing with her own private grief around the death of her daughter. Whatever difficulties Copeland endures, whatever fears he is forced to confront and find a way to move past, he is keenly aware that Grandma had trod a much, much more difficult path.
Not that the show is an any way a pat, how-to guide for single parents or overstuffed with heartwarming homilies by an all-knowing elder à la Tuesdays with Morrie. Far from it. Copeland’s grandmother is a gruff, taciturn disciplinarian who basically keeps her head down and just does the best she can with the supremely bad hand she’s been dealt. Life was certainly no picnic for her as an African American growing up in the Jim Crow South and she has learned to keep her true feelings in check as a matter of pure self-preservation. Yes, she is capable of acts of love, but you might not know it from some of her no-nonsense parenting techniques that would be considered outmoded today.
As the two-act show progresses, the script toggles back and forth between the two periods in a way that feels organic. Scenes from 1979 and 2001 resonate nicely without strictly mirroring each other. It’s a feat of dramaturgy, really, that we get two complete stories, two emotionally satisfying journeys, equally well-told and deftly tied together at the end. Even though the show is lengthy by solo performance standards – a full two hours, rather than the customary 60-90 minutes – it does not feel overly long and by the end it’s clear that everything was there for a reason. Certain scenes, such as son Brian’s obsession with purchasing a second-hand classic Mustang or dad Brian’s initial encounter with the principal of his kids’ school, may seem random and extraneous at first, but everything ultimately has a point, every moment serves to drive the narrative forward.
Ford gives the production one of his typically Marsh-ian, bare bones stagings. The “set” consists of exactly one rickety chair, Copeland’s single grey “costume” seems designed mainly to make it virtually unnoticeable, the subtle lighting only rarely strives to create specific effects and Casey Copeland’s spare soundscape consists mainly of intermittent snatches of period-specific music. This leaves the central focus squarely on Copeland’s performance, which is as it should be. He may be no great shakes as an actor, but he is a preternaturally gifted entertainer and storyteller with a deep well of empathy at his core. If his characterizations sometimes rely on quick-sketch signifiers, he is also a genial host who invites us into his specific world so that we can all experience it together.
While his portrayal of the various adult characters, especially his absent father, are well differentiated and nicely nuanced, his depictions of his own two youngest kids seem a little interchangeable and a tad too generically sweet. At times it feels like Copeland is upping the ante with the comedy just to make sure he’s keeping his audience sufficiently entertained. He’s been a successful standup comic for decades, so getting laughs from an audience is right in his wheelhouse, but the story he’s telling here is compelling enough in its own right that I could have done with a few less overtly jokey lines.
Ultimately, what makes the play work resonate so profoundly, though, is that Copeland really shines where it counts most, in his clear-eyed portrayal of his grandmother. He slips easily into her Alabama dialect and gravelly rasp, all starch and vinegar, showing us just occasional hints of the emotion she has been sublimating her entire life. Most critically, although there is nothing the least bit cute or sentimental about her, the love she harbors for her family comes through loud and clear, as does Copeland’s love for her.
In the end, the most indelible impressions I was left with were of two particularly affecting moments. One occurs as dad Brian struggles to counsel and comfort his tiny daughter after she’s been subjected to overt racism from a classmate. The other happens at the very end when teenager Brian has an opportunity to connect with his birth father. Neither incident unfolds the way you expect it to, and each culminates in an act of quiet grace. Although Copeland has subtitled his show “An Ode to Single Parents,” I see it really as more of an ode to humanity, to the belief that we can survive the worst of us. It invites those conversations that we all keep talking about having, not just rants and harangues but real conversations, the kind we need to be willing to engage in if we’re ever going to make significant progress in the fight to put racism and sexism once and for all in the rearview mirror.
Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents runs through November 19, 2022 with performances at 7:30pm Fridays and 5:00pm Saturdays at The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. For information or to order tickets visit www.themarsh.org.