Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent, is pictured in an undated photo. A one-man show, "Tolton: From Slave to Priest," tells the story of his life, faith and the racism he endured and is touring several U.S. cities. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)
Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized American diocesan priest of African descent, is pictured in an undated photo. A one-man show, "Tolton: From Slave to Priest," tells the story of his life, faith and the racism he endured and is touring several U.S. cities. (CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of Chicago Archives and Records Center)
The Archdiocese of Washington is partnering with the Diocese of Arlington to host Tolton: From Slave to Priest, a play about the first African-American priest, whose cause for sainthood is underway. The play will be held from Nov. 15-18 at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria.

Augustus Tolton was born in 1854 to enslaved parents in Missouri. When he was young, his mother risked her life to escape slavery by crossing the Mississippi River in a boat with one oar and her three young children. After growing up in the Catholic faith, Tolton sensed a call to the priesthood. Every American seminary to which he applied rejected him, so he studied and was ordained a priest in Rome. He then returned to minister the faithful in Quincy, Illinois, and later to Chicago, where his parishes drew large crowds of both white and black faithful.

The play has one live actor, Jim Coleman, who plays the role of Servant of God Augustus Tolton. A movie screen on stage plays videos of other characters in the show. When Coleman is speaking, he interacts with the audience as if they were the characters he is responding to, even though they do not speak back to him.

Coleman had just decided to retire when a good friend of his told him that God had placed it on her heart that he should audition for this role. When Coleman got a call from St. Luke Productions in December offering him the part, he said after a lot of prayer and thought, “it became clear to me that this what God wanted me to do.”

“It has truly become more of a ministry than a performance,” he said. “It is more of me bringing the word of God to people and telling a story that needs to be told – telling a story that so many people have not heard about.”

Though he grew up Baptist in Dallas, Texas in the 1960s, where Coleman said he did not even know Catholicism existed, he believes in God and the saints, and said he has learned a lot about the Catholic faith through playing this role. Since he has been staying in a lot of church rectories, he has attended Mass frequently.

“I think it is a beautiful ceremony,” he said. “I am learning more and more about it. I am starting to get the feel for it and I like it. I like the inclusion and the love that the Church has.” 

Coleman has appeared in commercials during the Super Bowl that have been viewed by millions of people, but he said he has come to regard this role as more important, despite having a much smaller audience. Recently, during a show in Cincinnati, he said one man from an audience of about 60 people came up to him after the show to tell him the story “has renewed my faith and changed my life.”

“If that show can make that change to one person, it is far more significant than being seen by four million people,” said Coleman.

The show runs for 75 minutes with no intermission, and tickets to the performance are free. Coleman said what he hopes people take away from the show is, “we are all one.” 

“God created us all in His image. There is only one race – it is the human race. We need to come together and love each other and stop judging,” he said. “A child can look at another child and become fast friends. They do not look at each other as being black or white, Hispanic or Muslim. They look at that other person and say, ‘I want that to be my friend.’ At this time in America, we need to start looking at each other and saying, ‘I want you to be my friend.’”

To view show times and reserve seats, visit www.arlingtondiocese.org/tolton/.