By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 28, 2022
ATLANTA—Stories that highlight slavery, oppression and racism do not always end with a standing ovation.
“Tolton: From Slave to Priest” opens as an enslaver beats men and women. A young Augustus Tolton is ordered to collect more tree saplings for beatings later.
In this American Catholic history lesson created by Saint Luke Productions, Tolton’s life is opened up through live acting and film. After being born into an enslaved Catholic family, he ends up being ordained in Rome. He died in Chicago as one of the country’s first Black priests.
Pope Francis declared him “Venerable” in 2019, stating he lived a life of heroic virtue.
The multimedia storytelling used in the one-actor show was unique. A film screen took up most of the space with minimal staging. At any given moment, the screen could change the setting of the story—from escaping slave catchers to a parish rectory in Quincy, Illinois, to Rome’s grand cityscape.
Other actors appear on the large screen while veteran actor Jim Coleman portrays Father Tolton. Among the characters are a racist German priest, a welcoming Italian prelate, the priest’s best friend, and Martha Jane, Tolton’s long-suffering mother. Throughout the show, Coleman responds to the characters shown on the screen.
The Lyke House Catholic Center at Atlanta University Center, St. Mary’s Academy, Fayetteville, and Our Lady of Assumption School each hosted Tolton performances in early November.
Actors reflect on roles
Coleman, 61, has performed the show for three years. He is best known for his role of Roger Parker in the 1990s Nickelodeon Show “My Brother and Me.”
Despite not having any stage experience, he auditioned at the encouragement of a friend. As it turned out, another actor got the role of Tolton. It was offered to him about a year later by the production company.
Coleman, who is Baptist, prepared by reading Sister Caroline Hemesath’s 2006 book, “From Slave to Priest.” He said he prays before every show, asking God to express Father Tolton’s life through his words and actions.
Knowing the priest’s story has deeply affected him. “It has changed the way I see things,” said Coleman.
He is willing to perform anywhere and in front of as many people as possible because he is committed to sharing the priest’s story to advance the cause of canonization, he said.
For him, the story’s hero is Father Tolton’s mother, Martha Jane. She leads the family to freedom. She confronts the parish priest and tells him her son needs an education at the white Catholic school. She prays for him.
“I tell people all the time a mother’s prayers will carry you places you will never, ever dream of. That’s how Father Tolton got to where he is. It was his mother. She was willing to risk everything, not just her life, her children’s life,” said Coleman. “She had to have a better life for her children. And that type of love reminds me of God’s love, because God gave his son to a woman.”
During his visit to Atlanta, Coleman met the actor playing his character’s mother, Elissa Sanders, for the first time. As for the singing in the story, Sanders, who works as a therapist, said she is influenced by gospel and jazz music. This role, however, required a voice familiar with Negro spirituals. She studied the greats and what she knew from church singing. Sanders said in preparing for her role she envisioned “this mother as someone that was powerful.”
“Even though they were going through a difficult time, I didn’t want her to be seen as just someone who was weak because the things that she did for her family and the journey that they took,” she said. “You couldn’t be weak minded to do what they did.”
For Sanders, Father Tolton’s life carries a message of grace and redemption.
“You can’t sit in there and hear that story and not see yourself,” she said.
Viewers are moved from their heart and should think differently at the conclusion, she said.
This life lived in the late 19th century teaches us lessons still, said Coleman. Racism is with us, he said, and overcoming it requires people to be brave against injustice, like the Irish priest and Tolton supporter Father Peter McGirr was.
“You need those people that don’t have to be brave to be brave now, to step up and make a change, to not be silent when they are right there and racism is happening,” he said. “That’s what I want people to walk away with, saying, ‘You know what? There was a history of this, but I will no longer be a part of.’”
Atlanta performances the work of Tolton Ambassadors
Louella DuBose has been involved with the Tolton Ambassadors since its 2016 founding in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The group’s mission is to promote the life and canonization of Father Tolton through education and prayer.
His life is valuable for all the faithful, but it touches the heart of African Americans in a special way, said DuBose, who worships at Jonesboro’s St. Phillip Benizi Church. Father Tolton is one of six Black American Catholics under consideration for possible canonization.
“Black people would be highly ecstatic, of course, and they would realize that recognition was finally given to someone who had to go through so much in order to serve God,” she said.
For her, the message of his life is a lesson in perseverance to follow God.
“I would like them to know he was definitely a child of God and that he was a very persistent individual,” said DuBose. “He persevered. He did not give up. That’s the main thing that young people need to do. They’re so quick, if it doesn’t happen instantly, especially in this day.”
Andrew Lichtenwalner, director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization & Discipleship, said the story showcases the universality of the church. He watched the performance at the Lyke House.
“The saints are our family—part of the one family of God. For people to see themselves—their culture, their ethnicity, their skin color—reflected and represented in the tapestry of the saints is a beautiful encouragement that also points to the universal and deeply personal aspects of the Lord Jesus’ call to holiness, discipleship and mission,” he said in an email.
Father Tolton’s story is important because it focuses on how cultural and racial differences “are seen in their true light as splendorous reflections of a deeper unity willed by God, and it also shows the destructiveness of the sin of racism to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and of loving as Christ loved,” he said.