Talkin' Broadway - The Siegel Column "Not a Genuine Black Man" and "columbinus" - May 30, 2006
The Siegel Column
4 stars: Not a Genuine Black Man
What a great pleasure it is to see a one man show about racism in America that actually brings something new to the table. Not a Genuine Black Man, written and performed by Brian Copeland, charges through much of the same material that other autobiographical shows do about growing up Black in America, but this play does so with keen self-awareness, a fresh take, and a script (developed by David Ford and Brian Copeland) that combines comedy, drama and tragedy into a three-layer cake that you'll eagerly swallow in one big bite of a single act.
Copeland, a San Francisco radio talk show host, received a piece of hate mail that insisted he was "not a genuine black man." Rather than toss the letter out, he was inspired to respond to it with this remarkable and meaningful entertainment. Copeland, a successful Black entertainer takes us back to the defining year of his life, when he was eight years old and his family, minus a violent, disappearing father, moved into what was then one of the most racist communities in the United States. He doesn't just tell us how racist San Leandro, California was, he documents it for us. Playing his mother, father, grandmother, his little sister, his landlord, neighbors, cops, a lawyer, and various other characters, including his eight-year-old self, Copeland gives us the harrowing and (amazingly) hilarious events that ensued over the next few years. He's not a gifted actor, but he brings a certain verisimilitude to the work by virtue of having lived it. Wisely, he also interweaves into the play pertinent elements of his adult life as a husband and father that resonant and deepen the impact of his tale.
Copeland's story, tightly and unselfconsciously directed by Bob Balaban, works on several levels. It is, first and foremost, a personal and dramatic coming of age story. But Copeland, in his uniquely honest fashion, tells us that most of the hurdles he had to overcome are common to Black children in America. Nonetheless, his story, so compellingly told, works reasonably well on that level alone. But Not a Genuine Black Man also works as an inspirational piece. The play, though chock full of villains, is also peppered with heroes, though neither he nor we can see that at first. That's because his heroes are also deeply flawed and very real human beings. They are anything but clichés. And that makes their heroism all the more meaningful and moving.
Finally, Copeland's play is a social statement. It's not so simplistic as poor Black kid, despite bias, makes good in America. No, it has far more to say than that because it's also about the community Copeland helped to integrate as an eight year old that is now one of the most thriving, culturally diverse cities in California. But even more than that, Not a Genuine Black Man effectively breaks down stereotypes in ways that make you laugh and understand that of course Copeland is a genuine Black man. But more important, Copeland is simply a genuine artist.
2½ Stars: columbinus
On paper, the idea of creating a play that begins in Any town, USA, and then narrows down to specific real events must have seemed like a splendid idea, especially to a company called the United States Theatre Project. In the case of columbinus, however, it's a disaster. This ambitious new play at New York Theatre Workshop tries to tell the story of the infamous Columbine High School shootings by starting its story in a fictional high school with fictional characters that eventually morph into the real killers and their victims. No wonder the first act is a boring cliché made even more off-putting due to PJ Paparelli's pretentiously "arty" direction.
Paparelli and cohort Stephen Karam provided the text, which is largely taken verbatim from interviews, transcripts, videotapes, etc. The second act is far more dramatically gripping because the play re-enacts that murderous morning when fifteen people died (including the two killers). It would be hard to make that boring. Here, Paparelli's direction has a kinetic energy, the fight direction by Scott Barrow is palpable, the sound design by Martin Desjardins is downright brilliant.
But just because it's better theater doesn't mean it's better art. We actually know less about these killer kids than we might have because the first half of the play is about generic bullies and their victims, not the real background of the actual murderers. For all its efforts - and oh this play tries so hard to look important - it simply skims the surface.
It is, however, well-acted, particularly by the two young men who play the killers, but the NYTW program inexplicably does not identify the actors with the roles they play. How come the actors are simply listed in alphabetical order without any indication of their specific "jobs" in the show, while we get to know the names of the lighting designer, costume designer, etc.? We think that's taking ensemble work a bit too far.
[Please note: The Siegel Column is using a 5 star rating system with 5 being its highest rating.]