Review: Brian Copeland solo show makes single parenting look pretty tidy

Brian Copeland in “Grandma & Me” at the Marsh. Photo: Marcus L. Jackson / The Marsh

When you find yourself a single parent, all alone in an impossible situation with young lives at stake, surely help must be on the way.

Nope.

“There’s no cavalry,” Brian Copeland says in “Grandma & Me.” No savior’s coming. No resources. Only government cheese and a steady drumbeat of burdens and pressures, broken up by bouts of panic and small, hard-won victories. Such is the cruelty of our society that we offer solo parents mere shrugs and expect them to soldier on, even when a daughter’s hair is falling out or she forlornly accuses her teacher of pitying her.

Copeland has been on both ends of single-parenting, and his show that opened Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Marsh, weaves those two eras of his life together: when he was 15 and his mother died, which meant his grandma inherited her daughter’s five children, and at the turn of the millennium, when after a divorce Copeland took primary custody of his own three kids.

Brian Copeland: a genuine Renaissance man

Brian Copeland in “Grandma & Me” at the Marsh. Photo: Marcus L. Jackson / The Marsh

In past Marsh productions, including “Not a Genuine Black Man” and “The Waiting Period,” Copeland has distinguished himself as an astute, rigorously honest solo performer, the kind who proffers insights only to inspect them once again in full view, to be truly sure he’s not letting himself off easy or painting a situation with insufficient nuance.

“Grandma & Me,” by contrast, comes across as sentimentally, just as the title sounds. Copeland’s grandmother evidently had bottomless wells of goodness and toughness, marred only by two times crying, ever. In learning to rear his own children, Copeland must simply ask himself, “What would Grandma would do?” and venerate her virtues once again.

If “Grandma & Me” supplies a welcome counter to the way American drama usually portrays Black families, it winds up offering another kind of simplicity.

Brian Copeland in “Grandma & Me” at the Marsh. Photo: Marcus L. Jackson / The Marsh

Sentiment is tricky. Both Copeland’s and his kids’ childhoods surely turned out just as happy as Copeland paints them, as the opening night attendance of three educators from his children’s youth attests. And sentiment works reliably, with its own little hands that know just where your tear ducts’ faucets are.

But it works because it’s predictable, because it reassures rather than probes or challenges, which can make it at odds with art. There’s never any doubt in “Grandma & Me,” directed by David Ford, that little Brian will grow out of his “asshole” phase and learn to appreciate his grandmother; there’s not much doubt either about an adult Brian as a dad. He wakes his kids up by singing Nat King Cole, comes up with a family motto, and walks the brood to school every day, chatting with the principal.

Copeland has not just ease in front of audiences; it’s impossible not to like and root for a guy who makes fun of himself for paying $100 for a DNA test only to learn his ancestors are from “Africa,” or for a grandson and father with such contagious affection for his family. But “Grandma & Me” even finds sympathy in the schoolkid who calls Copeland’s daughter a racial slur, as if the show is anxious to resolve tension and teach good morals.

Copeland is unhelped by a limited physicality — he spends a lot of time shuffling back and forth across the stage — and a script that’s padded with tired stand-up jokes (about makes of automobile, comic book store guys and Rice-A-Roni commercials) and larded with explanation where intimation would suffice. He keeps expatiating on his grandmother’s practicality, humor, generosity and resourcefulness when he should merely show them to us and trust us to arrive at our own conclusions.

Parenting, especially single parenting, is messy and complicated. In “Grandma & Me,” it looks pretty tidy and wholesome.

L“Grandma & Me”: Written by Brian Copeland. Directed by David Ford. Through Nov. 19. Two hours. $25-$100. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. 415-282-3055. www.themarsh.org



Review: Brian Copeland solo show makes single parenting look pretty tidy