On September 14th students at Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford enjoyed a live performance of Tolton: From Slave to Priest, an reenactment of the life of Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first African American Catholic priest in the U.S.
The touring play was created by Saint Luke Productions of Battle Ground, WA, a Catholic theater ministry that creates plays and movies about the Gospels and saints. The mission of the theater company is to teach audiences about Jesus and to support those in theater and media arts — actors, set designers, cinematographers, and more.
The man behind bringing Tolton to Northwest Catholic is Fr. Ed Nadolny. For the past five years, Fr. Naldony has brought plays, such as St. John Vianney and Thérèse: The Story of a Soul, to Connecticut schools. Today his organization, Good News Fund, Inc., brought Actor Jim Coleman and Stage Manager Sean Hanus to Northwest Catholic.
Jim Coleman of Orlando starred as Fr. Augustus Tolton. Before the performance Coleman reflected on his acting career and described his path to his latest role. A friend encouraged Coleman to come out of retirement to audition, but he wasn’t convinced it was the right decision until he met with Director Leonardo Defilippis at St. Luke’s home office. Once Coleman saw Defilippis’s passion for bringing stories of priests and saints to audiences across the country, Coleman jumped aboard. He says it’s been the most humbling and rewarding acting experience of his life.
Coleman answered the question why Tolton? with zeal, saying, “Tolton is still relevant today. Even though we have progressed in so many ways, we are still dealing with the same problems Tolton faced.” Coleman continued with the question, “How could it be that 100 years after Tolton struggled to became a priest, we still needed to pass a law so students of all colors could go to school together?” Coleman is of course referring to Brown v. Board of Education. He believes the older generations, including his own, “couldn’t get it right,” but he has hope in this next generation of young people. He believes they will change the world.
The son of a Protestant minister, Coleman is faithful, open, and grateful. He spoke fondly of his high school drama teacher who gave him the best, single piece of acting advice he ever received: “Paint a picture in your head. Then believe it and your audience will.” Ms. Reynold’s came to see Coleman perform as Tolton in April when the touring group was in Dallas. The two hadn’t seen each other since 1977. Coleman admits it was very emotional.
Northwest Catholic’s Director of Campus Ministry Kristina Gillespie also answered the why question. Gillespie explained how she was particularly excited for this production at Northwest Catholic because she believes the students will identify with Tolton’s struggles. She said, “Perhaps they haven’t all experienced discrimination, but they’ve all overcome obstacles or faced people telling them they can’t do what they’ve been called to do.” She continued, “Tolton was brave, selfless, and focused.” This is what Northwest Catholic hopes for its students — three virtues that will help them, like Fr. Tolton, reach their goals while serving God.
After the performance, Coleman spoke to the packed audience in Northwest Catholic’s theatre. He echoed his earlier sentiment that they, the young people, would effect change, recognizing in them their ways of “not seeing color but rather seeing code.” Coleman views their technological gifts as galvanizing. Fr. Nadolny also spoke to the audience, sharing with them the story of West Hartford’s Catholic schools integrating and how beautiful it is to see the diversity at Northwest Catholic today.