Why I’m Bringing Back NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN
It started out as a lark really.
I had always wanted to do a one man show. I’d been a hardworking comic for years. I began doing standup the week after high school graduation and over the next two decades, I worked my way up the ranks from comedy club emcee to feature act to headliner. I appeared on all of the standup shows of the day from “AN EVENING AT THE IMPROV” to “A&E COMEDY ON THE ROAD” to the “MTV HALF HOUR COMEDY HOUR.” I opened for everyone from Lionel Ritchie and Aretha Franklin to Ringo Starr, Rick Springfield and Smokey Robinson in venues from the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles to Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. I was doing fine, but I was unsatisfied with my work because, while my material got laughs, I wasn’t doing anything really personal. I didn’t feel like I was doing work that mattered. Then I got the letter.
For years, I had done a Sunday morning talk show on KGO Radio and one day in 2001, I opened a letter from a listener that read in part:
“As an African American, I am disgusted every time I hear your voice because YOU are not a genuine black man.”
It was not the first time that I had been accused of racial betrayal because I did not fit some stereotype about what it means to be black in America. I had heard such nonsense before. However, something about that particular letter struck a chord with me. I used that missive as a jumping off point to explore concepts of ethnic identity and the isolation that comes from being the person in a group who’s different.
I told the story of growing up in San Leandro, California in the 1970s when the city was a 94% militantly white community that did not want black people. Writer/Director Carl Reiner had been a guest on my radio program and gave me the advice to “find the piece of ground that you alone stand on and write from there.” I had spent my childhood as the only black face in the room. Taking what Carl said to heart, I wrote a play that took the audience by the hand and let them see what the world looks like through the eyes of an 8 year-old African American boy who is “the only one”.
To say that the story resonated would be an understatement. NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN opened at the Marsh theater in San Francisco in the spring of 2004 and went on to become the longest running solo show in San Francisco theatrical history followed by performances in over thirty cities, an Off Broadway run and a bestselling memoir that is required reading today in several schools and colleges across America. It was embraced by people of all ages, races, religions and ethnicities. When I asked folks what drew them to the story, the response was that everyone at some point finds themselves in situations where they have to navigate the waters as “the one who doesn’t belong.” GENUINE gave people the opportunity to embrace their empathy.
The show’s original run lasted eight years during which time America elected it’s first black president and commentators wrote about how America had entered a “post racial era.” We were allegedly in a period where our differences, in terms of inconsequential factors such as pigmentation, were irrelevant. America had moved on and so did I. I closed GENUINE and went on to write and perform three other well received solo plays. And then, the 2016 presidential race happened.
There had been harbingers of the climate that created the era we now find ourselves in. The resentment of those who believed that privilege was their birthright bubbled to the surface in the rise of the Tea Party. We saw people stand outside the White House gates waving confederate flags. During a State of the Union address, a congressman interrupted the President’s speech to shout, “You lie!” There was the conspiracy theory (that polls indicate a majority of Republicans continue to believe) that the first African American president was born in Kenya and thus, not an American at all. He was in fact, “the other.”
It has been said that when those who are used to privilege are forced to extend equal opportunities to others, it feels like oppression. The presidential campaign of 2016 gave voice to the sentiment that there was only one demographic that was made up of “true Americans” and it didn’t include women, non-Christians, the foreign born or people of color. Attitudes and slurs that in recent years had been confined to spaces behind closed doors were now openly spewed in the public square. To denounce or express offense to such talk was “politically correct.”
Today, we have a marked increase in hate crimes. Mosques are bombed with alarming frequency. People who “look Mexican” are attacked. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. School children harass and bully their peers who are of different ethnic backgrounds using the verbatim language of the President of the United States. And now, an emboldened white nationalist movement has lead to the deaths of three people in Charlottesville. America has lost her empathy. Maybe, that bullied little black boy can help her rediscover it.
NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN runs at the Marsh in San Francisco through September. For tickets, visit themarsh.org.