Actor Jim Coleman portrays Father Augustus Tolton in a 2021 performance of "Tolton: From Slave to Priest." Photo courtesy of St. Luke Productions
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BOSTON -- St. Luke Productions, a Catholic theater company that produces plays and films about various saints, will be touring its original play "Tolton: From Slave to Priest" at several venues in Massachusetts this September.
The play recounts the life of Ven. Augustus Tolton, who escaped slavery as a child and went on to become the first priest of fully African descent in the U.S. It is directed by Leonardo Defilippis, the founder and president of St. Luke Productions, and features Jim Coleman in the role of Father Tolton.
Defilippis and his wife, Patti Defilippis, wrote the play in close connection with Bishop Joseph Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, who is the postulator of the cause for Father Tolton's canonization.
"This is an incredible person in terms of a witness to the priesthood, and it's been a real spark plug for dealing with the race problems and relations that we have today," Defilippis said in an Aug. 2 interview.
St. Luke Productions has brought "Tolton: From Slave to Priest" to colleges, seminaries, parishes, and theaters. According to the company, they have performed the show more than 200 times in 25 states.
One Hwang, a Korean parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish in Roslindale, saw the play while visiting Portland, Oregon, in 2017. After seeing "Tolton," she wanted to give communities in Massachusetts opportunities to see the touring production. She helped make arrangements for the upcoming performances, including one in her parish.
"By presenting the story of Tolton in an artistic way, the play tells our African American brothers and sisters that they belong in the Catholic Church. Moreover, Venerable Tolton is a spiritual role model for people of all backgrounds," Hwang said in an email pitching the play to local pastors.
Speaking to The Pilot, Hwang expressed the belief that many people do not want to come to church anymore because of abuses of power that they have either experienced or heard about. This made her curious about the experience of Father Tolton, who suffered injustice and discrimination within the Church. He was turned away from seminaries in the U.S., so he finally went to Rome to study for the priesthood. He was then sent back to America, where he ministered to people regardless of their race, despite opposition from white Catholics and Black Protestants.
"He bore the brunt of a lot of systematic problems within the Church. And he still loved the Church, and instead of running away from it, he decided to lead it. So I find that very intriguing," Hwang said.
Defilippis thinks that because of Father Tolton's place in African American history, the play holds interest not only for Catholics but also for other Christian denominations as well as secular society.
"I think what's really interesting is that this show can reach, in some ways, a wider sector of society," Defilippis said.
Jim Coleman has been playing Father Tolton for over three years. Prior to that, he primarily acted in television and film.
"Father Tolton's story is something that I am so honored and humbled to share with whoever will come to see it. It's truly a story of faith and perseverance," he said.
One thing that makes St. Luke Productions' plays unusual is that they are multimedia shows. One actor -- in this case Coleman -- is present onstage, while other characters are projected on a screen that also serves as a backdrop. The live actor addresses the audience as the character opposite them. St. Luke's plays also have original music underpinning the scenes like a film score.
Coleman and Defilippis both acknowledged the relevance of Father Tolton's story in the current context of race relations in the U.S. and the world.
"This story shows how we are all one in Christ, and we need to come together and understand that we need to love just as Jesus loved us," Coleman said.
Defilippis said that people of various nationalities and ethnicities have connected with the story. Audience members who fled Communist countries like Cuba or Vietnam relate strongly to Father Tolton's escape from slavery.
"With 'Tolton,' you see healing, you see unity, you see oneness, you see forgiveness, something missing in our society," Defilippis said.
He noted that theater is "a communal art form" and "a way of bringing people together, who might be afraid to come together, to witness something."
"This play is a way to bring everyone together and realize we're all from one human race," he said.
"Tolton: From Slave to Priest" will tour Massachusetts from Sept. 19-26, with performances at Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River, Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, the Pope John Paul II Social Center in Holyoke, Sacred Heart Parish in Roslindale, St. Anthony Shrine in Boston and St. Paul Parish in Hingham.
More information about "Tolton: From Slave to Priest" can be found at www.toltondrama.com. The performance schedule can be viewed at www.stlukeproductions.com/shows/Tolton.