Hollywood actor portrays first African-American priest in Detroit area performances
Mar 26, 2019
St. Luke Productions' Tolton: From Slave to Priest tells story of sainthood candidate Fr. Augustus Tolton with music, special effects
DETROIT — Nearly 40 years ago, Leonardo Defilippis set aside his career as a Shakespearean stage actor to start St. Luke Productions. Ever since, the company has been bringing theatrical productions on the life of Christ and the saints to venues throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
The nonprofit's latest offering is “Tolton: From Slave to Priest,” which tells the story of the first African-American priest, Fr. Augustus Tolton, whose cause is being considered for sainthood in Rome. The play will be performed at several venues in southeast Michigan starting on March 29.
Defilippis is hopeful Detroiters will embrace the play and Fr. Tolton himself.
“Fr. Tolton was rejected his entire life,” Defilippis told Detroit Catholic during a recent interview. “That is why he is not known. It will be interesting to see how the Detroit community welcomes him.”
Most Detroiters are aware of Blessed Solanus Casey, the second American priest to be named a saint.
Blessed Solanus “was an order priest, a Franciscan,” Defilippis said. “But if Fr. Tolton becomes a saint, he will be the first canonized diocesan priest in the U.S.”
Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, postulator for Fr. Tolton’s canonization cause, called Tolton a production that will “inspire a new era of peace, hope and forgiveness in America.”
Since the play opened last year, Defilippis said audiences have been deeply moved by the production.
“There is always weeping and crying,” he said. “This happens at every performance. Tolton is different than other plays.”
Defilippis took pains to make sure the story is told with exact historical detail.
“It hits people to see how he is persecuted, and his incredible determination,” Defilippis said.
The play chronicles how Fr. Tolton’s mother escaped from slavery in Missouri with her three children to freedom in Illinois. When her son Augustus became a man, he felt called to the priesthood, “but no seminary at that time in the United States would accept a black person,” Defilippis said. With help from an immigrant Irish priest, he was eventually sent to Rome to study.
“There he had an incredible experience of what freedom means,” Difilippis said. “He could go anywhere. He didn’t have to use separate bathrooms. The Italians, the cardinals, they loved him. He even had the special grace of having his first Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, which is usually only offered to cardinals and high bishop dignitaries — an incredible thing when you think about it.”
After his ordination, however, Fr. Tolton was sent back to battle the institutionalized prejudices of America.
“It is an amazing story,” Defilippis said. “It’s a healing story of racial division and racial relations. That is why it is so current today. This play should be seen not just by all Catholics, white and black, but also our Protestant brothers and sisters. It is our story.”
Actor finds grace in powerful role
Veteran television and film actor Jim Coleman, who portrays Fr. Tolton, has been humbled and inspired by the role.
“Fr. Tolton’s story needs to be told,” Coleman said. “As a black man, this very important part of history is something I want the world to hear about. I truly feel blessed to be the one to share Fr. Augustus Tolton with all who will listen.”
Coleman was born and raised a Baptist, and the son of a minister. He is amazed at how close he feels to the priest he plays.
“Believe it or not, portraying Fr. Augustus Tolton is by far the most exciting, fulfilling, life-changing experience I’ve ever had,” Coleman said. “I’ve worked alongside Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas, Charlize Theron, but I was always playing a role written by someone. It was made up, basically. Not real. To portray such a virtuous person as Fr. Augustus has really changed my life. It has changed my heart. I feel his presence every time I go on stage.”
While Coleman said he has never before been nervous to play a role, he is a “nervous wreck” before each performance of Tolton.
“I want to do justice to him, to do justice to his life, to his story. I want it to be pure. I pray so hard before each show. I ask Fr. Tolton to speak through me so his story is told properly,” Coleman said.
Coleman was chosen for the role after another actor who portrayed Fr. Tolton did not sign on for the play's second season. He admits he didn’t want the role at first when a producer friend who is a “devout Catholic” told him about the audition.
“I was semi-retired, and life was pretty good at the time,” Coleman said. “But she said to do it as a favor to her, so I auditioned.”
When he heard someone else got the role, he was “thrilled.”
“I said somebody else got it. I don’t have to worry about it. Three months later, they called me and asked me if I would be interested,” Coleman said.
He and his wife, Robin, discussed the opportunity and prayed together.
“It was really her. I said, ‘I’m not sure if I can do this.’ She said, ‘God has given you this opportunity,’” Coleman said.
Like most St. Luke performances, Tolton is basically a one-man play, augmented by music and film in the background. Defilippis admits the multimedia performance is a concept not used much in theater; Tolton is one of the most sophisticated examples of St. Luke’s multimedia concept to date, he said.
“It’s virtually a one-man show, but there is a movie screen behind me with actors acting with me,” Coleman said. “It’s very unique. When people see it, they are amazed.”
He admits playing the role has been challenging.
“When I signed on with St. Luke Productions, I hadn’t done theater in almost 30 years,” Coleman said. “Television and film are actually easier. You can just say cut, and they can fix it in post-production. But live theater is just that. There are no shortcuts. You can’t do it over.”
Tolton performance dates in Detroit and the Metro area include:
- Friday, March 29 at 12:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit
- Saturday, March 30 at 2 p.m. at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit
- Monday, April 1 at 7 p.m. at Davidson Middle School, Southgate
- Tuesday, April 2 at 9:30 a.m. at Davidson Middle School, Southgate
- Thursday, April 4 at 7 p.m. at the Pix Theater, Lapeer
- Friday, April 5 at 7 p.m. at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Brighton
- Sunday, April 7 at 7 p.m. at St. Anthony Kenna Hall, Temperance
For more information on St. Luke Productions and all their performances, go to https://www.stlukeproductions.com/ or call (360) 687-8029.