Bay Area comedian, TV talk-show host and radio personality Brian Copeland started and stopped writing his latest autobiographical solo stage show “The Waiting Period” a handful of times. After all, his tale of buying a gun to kill himself, enduring the 10-day, state-mandated cool-down period and somehow emerging from such intense darkness is a tricky subject, even for a pro like Copeland.
Then something happened that propelled him to complete the work.
“A 15-year-old boy — someone I’d never met, but I’ve known his extended family for years — laid down in front of a train in January 2011 and committed suicide,” Copeland said during an interview at KGO-TV’s studios in San Francisco, just before his daily appearance as the jovial co-host of the “7Live!” afternoon talk show.
“That was it,” he said, more serious than he ever appears on TV. “I knew I had to get this done. I had to share my own story, to reach out to people who are suffering from depression, to get them to tell someone what’s going on inside. That’s my mantra: tell someone.”
With this sad but powerful impetus, Copeland forged ahead to complete “Waiting,” dedicating the work to that teenage boy.
The 75-minute show opened last weekend and plays through March 24 at the Marsh in San Francisco. Through his interpretation of more than 20 characters, Copeland — who lives in San Leandro — walks his audience through shadowy places in his lifelong struggle with depression, mining humor from aspects that later struck him as amusing, such as debating how much he should spend on the gun.
Not to give too much away, Copeland will only admit he had “an epiphany” during that 10-day span. But — spoiler alert! — he’s still here, so at least we know how the story ends.
“I look at (the show) like I’m digging a great big hole for you, and before you get to China, I pull you up out of it,” he joked. “There’s laughter, there’s tears. I’m trying to start a national conversation about this disease called depression and help dispel the stigma. It’s more than just a case of feeling sad, chin up, get over it. It can be a debilitating condition.”
Mental health groups are hailing Copeland’s decision to share his experiences with a condition that, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, affects about 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population 18 and older. At least two organizations plan to hold fundraisers at the Mission district theater during the show’s run: the Alameda County P.E.E.R.S. outreach group and the San Francisco chapter of Bring Change 2 Mind, a national campaign cofounded by actress Glenn Close, whose sister and nephew suffer from mental-health problems.
“(Copeland) does such an incredible job of sharing his personal story,” said Pamela Harrington at Bring Change 2 Mind. “It’s a powerful show and will open up dialogue on what is really the last taboo in terms of public health.”
Rochelle Elias, a member of the Alameda County Mental Health Board, agrees.
“Brian is really courageous in what he’s doing,” she said. “For high-profile people like him to put such a spotlight on these issues and to provide a message that there’s always hope — this will make a difference in many lives.”
Very many lives if the success of his previous one-man stage show, “Not a Genuine Black Man,” is any indication. That critically acclaimed solo show recently ended a seven-year, 700-performance stint at theaters across the country, even off-Broadway. in it, Copeland tackled heavy subjects like domestic violence and racism based on his experiences growing up in the 1970s as a kid in the only black family in his San Leandro neighborhood. He also penned a companion book of the same title that quickly hit best-seller lists.
To laugh, not to cry
Copeland said depression isn’t unusual for comics.
“It’s the proverbial tears-of-a-clown type of thing,” he said. “It really is how comics deal with pain. the sense of humor is a way of self-medicating for a lot of us. We laugh so we don’t cry. the only comic I’ve ever heard of who’s perfectly well-adjusted and had a happy childhood is Jay Leno.”
Copeland’s last serious bout with depression — the theme of “Waiting” — hit about four years ago after a barrage of bad luck: a broken marriage, the loss of his grandmother who had raised him, and then a major car crash that nearly took his life and left him on painkillers and on a couch for months. dark thoughts seeped in, pulling him deeper in that hole to China. It was then he visited a gun shop.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly,” he said.
Statistics show mental illness touches one in four families in America, and yet it’s a disease that gets little discussion, Elias said.
“There are so many people now on prescription medications — anything from mild anxiety to acute stress reactions — showing it’s not an uncommon disease in this increasingly stressful society,” she said. “We all need to realize our humanity and open up to supporting each other instead of shying away from addressing these issues. That’s what Brian’s show will help to do.”
Copeland hopes so, too.
“I hope people will say, ‘Hey, if that guy can get up there and tell this story in front of an audience, maybe I can tell it to a relative or a clergyman or a doctor — somebody,’ ” he said. “There are so many people out there who are hurting. I never want to read about another 15-year-old boy lying down in front of a train ever again.”