Two great productions worth the drive

Martinez News-Gazette Columnist

This week’s two reviews take us first to San Francisco for some thought-provoking discourse on the pain of segregation to children and their families, as described in Brian Copeland’s award-winning solo show, “Not a Genuine Black Man”. Next, in Alameda, the terrific little theater known as Altarena Playhouse has just delivered a very thought-provoking and somewhat wacky play entitled The Clean House by playwright Sarah Ruhl, known for her unique, off the wall theatrical satires.

Approximately 10 years ago my wife, who was an avid KGO listener, suggested that we purchase a book and see a play written and performed by Brian Copland whom she enjoyed listening to on Talk Radio Shows. She said that this true story chronicled the trials and tribulations inflicted upon Brian Copeland and his family’s life as they became one of the first black families to move into the almost exclusively white community of San Leandro, California, in 1972. I immediately made arrangements with the Marsh theater to review the show. We were completely mesmerized by Copeland’s story as he vacillated back and forth between his earlier adult self and his eight-year-old child personage, reliving the horrific prejudice that he, and his siblings, plus his mother and grandmother, tolerated while trying to live a better life in an unwelcoming community.

Copeland, the articulate and intelligent master entertainer, is once again sharing his first play written over 10 years ago, which he has performed many times in the past and recently decided to perform again in order to re-address the increasingly acrimonious issues of racial hatred and bigotry within our country. He expressly states that bringing back this highly acclaimed show to new audiences will allow many viewers an opportunity “to see the world through the eyes of a bullied 8-year-old child of color,” which he hopes will open eyes. Mr. Copland has in essence, cried out to our hearts that we might once again welcome all ethnicities, and decry all racial stereotyping and prejudice.

When my wife, two daughters, and my grandson returned to the Marsh theater this past week, we once again were deeply moved by Mr. Copland’s story and performance. Following the show, sat down to sign copies of his book for those who wish to purchase them. My blind 22-year-old grandson, Kevin, insisted on meeting him in person, following their meeting, he could not heap enough praise on this man and his important message on the terrible pain and consternation inflicted upon children and adults through acts of racial prejudice. You too will be moved. Do not miss this powerful and thought-provoking production!

This superlative show continues every Thursday night at 7:30 PM. The Marsh tickets range in price between $20 and $30 for open seating, and $55-$100 for reserved seating. The venue for this production is on the second floor of the theater complex and is easily accessible by elevator. The theater is located at 1062 Valencia Street in San Francisco (94110), approximately 4 ½ blocks from the BART station at 24th and Mission Street. If you prefer to drive into the city the Mission Bartlett garage is less than a block away at 3255 21st St. Tickets may be secured by calling (415) 282-3055 (between 1 PM and 4 PM, Monday through Friday) or by visiting their website at

Author Sarah Ruhl is unapologetically unique! She is an award-winning playwright, has been nominated for a Tony, and became a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. She is smart, provocative, and inquisitive. While I genuinely love two of her other plays, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), I enjoyed and yet found myself somewhat confused by certain absurdities in the The Clean House which I am going to attempt to explain to you now. Director Jacqui Herrera explains in her notes that “this play is about how we humans desperately try to control the forces of life, death, and love.” I feel that this play is like a painting that attempts to give you an abstract artistic definition of life, a collage that is distorted but extremely colorful. In fact, director Herrera compared it with the famous distorted melting clock paintings by Salvador Dali. I agree.

The play opens with Brazilian housekeeper, Matilde (Janelle Aguirre), exhorting the audience to engage with her as she tells (in un-interpreted Brazilian) a lengthy Brazilian joke delivered with somewhat raunchy exuberance to the curious yet linguistically confused audience. We learned that Matilde hates cleaning house, but loves telling and creating jokes most of all (often becoming depressed when not creating them). Her greatest aspiration in life is to create and tell the perfect joke. Her American doctor employer, Lane (Marsha Harrison), also hates to clean house which is why she hired Matilde as a live-in housekeeper but does not understand Matilde’s terrible performance as a housekeeper, when she was specifically hired to perform that duty. She has become exceedingly dissatisfied with her, threatening to fire her. On the other hand, Lane’s sister, Virginia (Jeanette Sarmiento), is a compulsive housekeeper and cannot understand why her sister, or anyone else, refuses to clean their own house. Lane’s husband, Charles (Louis Schilling), a doctor, has unbeknownst to his wife, fallen in love with one of his cancer patients, Ana (Adriana Palhares). Well, this story is a clever puzzlement and you will have to see this very askew play in order to grasp how it’s author suggests that adversity may eventually change our lives for the better, even when life seems it’s darkest.

Director Herrera’s cast are delightfully charismatic characters and very good actors. The Clean House plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2 pm, with one Thursday performance on September 5th at 8pm, and closing on September 8th. The Altarena Playhouse is very cozy and comfortable. It is located conveniently at 1409 High Street across the street from Lincoln Park. Generally, there is ample street parking near the theater. Tickets are $30 each, with a three-dollar discount for students and they may be found on the internet at or by calling (510) 523-1553.

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