By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Moments before taking the stage, a familiar feeling of nervousness that often morphed into anxiety engulfed Jim Coleman.  

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Jim Coleman captured Father August Tolton’s love for the Eucharist on his journey to becoming the first African-American priest in America during the production, “Tolton: From Slave to Priest.” Photo by Debbie Shelley | The Catholic Commentator 

 

He immediately dialed in his checklist, including breathing exercises or in the most dire of circumstances, a call to his wife that would likely conclude with both engaged in prayer. 

For a seasoned actor of three decades, such feelings are surprising.After all, this is a thespian with an extensive resume that includes live theatre, 50 television commercials, recurring roles in the eponymous Law & Order series and several roles in major movies. 

But Coleman understands his current role is beyond entertainment, beyond any script he has previously undertaken. For the past year, Coleman has been portraying Father John Tolton, a childhood slave who would go on to study in Rome and become the first African-American ordained priest. 

Coleman recently brought the one-man play to the Catholic Life Center, shortly after performing in New Orleans and days before moving on to a pair of two-night engagements in Lafayette and Lake Charles. 

“This is the most important role I’ve ever had,” said Coleman, the father of six grown children and grandfather of 10, and who lives with his wife in Orlando, Florida. “Even though I’ve done this since January, every time I get ready to walk out there, I’m nervous, worried. I want the story to be so clear that when people leave they can say ‘I saw it.’ 

“This is me, the audience will receive what I give them. There is no take two. It has to be right, and it has to be true.” 

“I feel in telling this story, it’s not me telling it but it’s Father Tolton telling his story because it’s a story that needs to be told,” he added. “For me, an African-American and never hearing about this, I feel like it has to be told.” 

Coleman, a devout Christian whose commitment to his faith flows through his words, says he prays before each show, not only to God but to Father Tolton. He says he asks Father Tolton to “take the wheel. Allow me just to be a vessel and paint the picture so people can see your story.” 

During the performance where he interacts with the audience there are times Coleman admits he is so connected to Father Tolton that he experiences overwhelming sadness because it was a time of sadness in the priest’s life. He says he can actually feel the hurt and pain, and admitted those experiences can be “frightening” because even though he takes all of his roles seriously he remains an actor. 

“It surprises me and that is one of the things I love about doing the show now,” Coleman said. “I feel like every time I do the show it’s new.” 

“I don’t want it to be a routine; I don’t want it to be just another thing I walk out and do,” he added. “I need the anxiety, I need that nervousness. 

“I know that I am speaking about God.”

Although the story is focused on how an African-African boy rose from a southern plantation to a pioneer in the Catholic Church, Coleman said it is more about the American dream. 

“This is what we all want: to love something so much you go through the obstacles and you achieve it. And become a success,” Coleman said. 

Yet, Coleman’s success is a story that was never written. After deciding to retire from acting to spend more time with his family and to travel with his wife, Coleman received a phone call from a close friend and former producer. The friend told him, “God laid it on my heart to talk to you about this role. It’s Father Tolton. I think you would be perfect for the part.” 

After Coleman dismissed the idea, his former producer simply asked him as a favor to audition. He did, via Skype, with Leonard and Patti Defilippis, who are the founders of St. Luke Productions, a Catholic theater company that tours nationally. 

Although they were looking for a Catholic, the couple told Coleman they were impressed with his work and his own Christian faith was not a deal breaker. But several months later, he received word that someone else would be playing the role. 

In December 2017, he received a second call from the Defilippis saying the original actor had backed out and asked if he would be interested. Coleman said his wife, after considerable prayer involving both of them, told him he should take the part. 

The scenario, as it played out, came as no surprise to Coleman’s mother-in-law who predicted her son-in-law would eventually play the part, telling him “this is your show. I know you are supposed to be doing this.” 

And when he told her he got the part? “She said ‘I know you are doing the show. You didn’t have to tell me.’ ” 

Coleman said he originally signed on for six months but 80-plus performances later, he is as nervous, as passionate, as committed to the show, which is a grass roots operation. He said he will continue to perform as long as the passion is there.

“I will stay until it becomes routine, until I no longer feel this is a ministry,” he said. “It has to be a ministry, I have to evangelize. 

“If it becomes routine, it is no longer (Father Tolton) telling the story; it’s me selling the story. As long as he is telling the story I’m with him.” 

Coleman said he was unaware of the impact playing such an important role would have on his own spiritual life. His faith has deepened, he said, because he feels the presence of Father Tolton.

“I truly believe God’s hand led me to this,” he said.