“The Jewelry Box” is a one-man show written and performed by Brian Copeland, and produced by San Francisco Playhouse. Like many Christmas tales, “The Jewelry Box” highlights what love and kindness can accomplish, but the relatability of the characters and their experiences sets this story apart from more magical Christmas tales. The characters’ responses to soul-wrenching injustices such as eviction, a selfish father and financial hardships, are touching reminders that the holiday season is really about love, family and kindness — everything else is simply tinsel on the tree.
Set in Oakland in the 1970s, the performance follows 6-year-old Copeland’s efforts to buy a jewelry box for his mother for Christmas, as she had left hers behind in one of their many moves. From donning a three-piece suit to interview for a car salesman position to collecting pop bottles, Copeland’s efforts to gather enough funds are both hilarious and heartwarming.
The play refrains from special effects or elaborate visual aesthetics, instead opting for a black background with Copeland at center stage. Sound effects are infrequent and occasionally disjointed from the pace of action, but the camera angles are impactful — subtly highlighting Copeland’s changing mannerisms and expressions for each of his 17 different characters.
Despite maintaining a fairly static position on stage, Copeland’s mannerisms, voices and facial expressions craft instantly recognizable personalities. Copeland switches between characters in rapid succession, moving from himself as a child to his grandma to his mother to his father to the play’s narrator.
Comedic moments are peppered throughout the scenes, with some of the most hilarious lines occurring when 6-year-old Copeland encounters two older men drinking together outside a corner store. Copeland’s portrayal of the men is hilarious, as they bicker back and forth, advising the 6-year-old not to pick up the drink. The child asks in response, “Well, why don’t you put it down?” The innocence of questions like these gives new perspective to struggle and hardship, while also eliciting some chuckles.
Copeland’s acting does not demand attention. It is not exaggerated or brash, but rather, decidedly realistic. And while this means his characters are all the more maturely developed, it also means that the audience must pay close attention. They must watch for the subtle movements of his face, the change in his posture and the shift in his tone to keep up with the plot. And for audience members up for this, “The Jewelry Box” is delightful and meaningful storytelling. But for those with less patience, who are looking to be obviously or excessively entertained, this may not be the right viewing experience.
Often, solo performances run the risk of either becoming too personalized and autobiographical, or too broad and tumultuous. Well, “The Jewelry Box” circumvents both of these pitfalls with Copeland’s exceptional writing abilities, which are widely relatable and personally nuanced. The humorous questions of a 6-year-old boy and the hilarity of his perspective are refreshing to experience in a year when innocence and laughter have been hard to come by. Copeland’s narration is perfectly paced, with the occasional aesthetic interjection, and a varied perspective on Black working-class life in 1970s Oakland.
“The Jewelry Box” is a gift of perspective, and a delightful way to spend any evening this holiday season. Tickets are available for purchase on the San Francisco Playhouse website, and the play will be available to watch until Dec. 25.
“The Jewelry Box,” thematically, is a reminder that isolation doesn’t have to be lonely, while its plot reminds us that Christmas isn’t about the material objects we own or how much money we spend, but, in the words of Copeland’s mother, “Christmas is about the feeling you give to the people you love.”