ALAMEDA -- Surprisingly funny, intensely personal and always genuine, Brian Copeland brings his one-man shows to the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., for two performances only. "Not a Genuine Black Man" plays Friday and "The Waiting Period" takes place on Saturday.

"I've performed these shows all over from the 60-seat California Conservatory Theater in San Leandro to the 1,600-seat Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa and off-Broadway, but performing at the Altarena is one of my favorites," Copeland said. "I like small theaters where you can see the audiences' faces. You feed off of their reactions and they feed off yours."

"Not a Genuine Black Man" traces Copeland's childhood growing up in the 1970s in one of the few black families in the white suburb of San Leandro, where he still lives today. Premiered in 2004, the disarming memoir is also a powerful contemplation on the meaning of race and a thoughtful examination of how our surroundings make us who we are.

"I'd been wanting to write a solo show but didn't know what to write about," said Copeland, who had already achieved fame as a standup comedian, opening for such diverse performers as Ray Charles, Steve Allen, Rick Springfield and many, many more. "Then Carl Reiner told me to find a realm where I alone stood. Sometime we're all going to feel alone where we're the only black, only woman, only Jew, only Muslim. It's hard to navigate those waters when you're the only one."


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Copeland took Reiner's advice and wrote his first draft about growing up black in the white enclave of San Leandro.

"He said to write 'naked' like no one was every going to see it and without censoring anything," Copeland added. The author also noted that he did his first draft in a composition notebook with a No. 2 pencil, a practice he still follows.

"There is something about the flow from heart to mind to pen that's important for me," he said.

The final catalyst for the play, as well as the title, came from a listener to Copeland's weekly KGO talk show. An anonymous letter arrived at the station from someone identifying himself as an African American and saying how disgusted he was every time he heard Copeland's voice because "You are not a genuine black man."

Opening in 2004 at San Francisco's Marsh Theatre, "Not a Genuine Black Man" ran for 25 months, becoming the longest running one-man show in San Francisco history. Copeland has since performed the show across the country including three months Off-Broadway. The play is also required reading in many college classes.

Five years ago, Copeland found himself once again sharing vulnerable parts of his life with an audience.

"The Waiting Period" chronicles Copeland's depression and suicidal tendencies. The title refers to the mandatory 10- day waiting period before people can bring home the gun they have purchased.

"I was very depressed at that time," he said. "I was going through a divorce, my grandma who raised me had just passed, and I was in a very bad car accident that almost left me a quadriplegic."

Copeland hit bottom when his injuries kept him immobile for three months.

"I was able to battle through it and come out the other side, but others aren't always so lucky. When a close friend's nephew laid down in front of a moving train in Oakley in 2010, I knew I had to tell my story and, hopefully, help others suffering from depression to get some help."

While Copeland's one-man shows deal with heavy topics, they are also full of the comedian's comic twists and wicked sense of humor. David Ford directs both and has been a long-time collaborator with Copeland.

"David really helps with the tone of the pieces and how a scene should go," Copeland said. "He helps make it all possible."

Copeland, who just marked his 20th anniversary at KGO, has two more one-man shows in the works. "Scion," an investigative piece based on a major news event in the East Bay premieres at the Marsh in September and a Christmas memoir, "The Jewelry Box," a prequel to "Not a Genuine Black Man" that also pays homage to both his mother and grandmother, runs in November.

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For tickets to the Altarena Playhouse performances, call 510-523-1553 or go online to www.altarena.org.