In a theatre season distinguished by major revivals—Roundabout's Follies, Bells Are Ringing—could anyone fault a single playwright for staging a comeback all his own?
Now a resident of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, a sprawling but sparsely populated township located 20 minutes due east of Great Barrington, former theatre advocate, civil rights activist and NYC Housing authority spokesman Val Coleman is anticipating the world premiere of his play, The Stamp Collection in August. The show runs Aug. 18-19 at the newly established Sandisfield Arts Center.
Coleman's Stamp Collection is an autobiographical account of the time he spent as a boy helping to tend to a neighborhood woman whose life was defined by her hemophilia and the fact that she was a devoted Christian Scientist who eschewed medical intervention. Because the real-life antique dealer's wife was a family friend, Coleman was able to share the burden and unique privilege of her most meaningful life reflections during the final days of her life in 1941.
With some casting still being done, The Stamp Collection , is directed by Myles Corey. The technical director is David LeBeau. The show stars Phyliss LeBeau as Olga Trimble, the antique dealer’s ailing wife, and 11-year-old Tucker Anderson as the young Coleman. The playwright will serve as the narrator for the story, which takes place just ahead of the United States' entry into World War II. Knowing that her own life is nearing an end, LeBeau's character imbues the young boy with universal truths. She wraps these lovingly, in a historical context, just as her faith in her own belief system is being tested for the last time.
An energetic septuagenarian, Coleman's path to the Sandisfield premiere began 50 years ago when he was embroiled in the "seminal period" of Off-Broadway's development. "I was involved with the group that ultimately became Circle in the Square," Coleman told Playbill On-Line. "We were the Loft Players, led by Jose Quintero." Coleman acted and designed sets at Woodstock's Maverick Theatre in the heady summer of 1950, working for both Quintero and producer Ted Mann. While Coleman's early theatre work included building seating for Circle in the Square, it eventually brought him into close contact with the Civil Rights Movement where he became a spokesperson for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was the group that initiated the original 1961 "Freedom Ride," the symbolic journey south from Washington, D.C., where whites took the rear seats on two buses and blacks took the front, in defiance of prevailing segregation laws. The original two buses were eventually confronted by the Klu Klux Klan in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. These events prompted hundreds of subsequent Freedom Rides and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s.
During a stint as a civil rights consultant for NBC News in 1968, Coleman was one of four people comprising news reporter Bob Teague's crew when they took a serendipitous left turn and wound up in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel during the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago. Teague's now historic footage of those events could have easily been lost but for the determined efforts of that crew. Despite not having a mask to protect him from the tear gas, Coleman grabbed the film can and made it through the demonstration and delivered the tape to NBC for broadcast. It was this tape that contained the now memorable images of the crowd protesting police abuse while chanting, "The whole world is watching."
Coleman went on to become the Housing Authority's director of public information in New York City, and later an adjunct professor at Columbia where he taught Urban Planning until his retirement in 2001. His launch as a playwright began with the publication of his short stories, "Beverly & Marigold," an anthology that presaged The Stamp Collection. Published by St. Martins Press, "Beverly & Marigold" is still available at barnes&noble.com.
Tickets to The Stamp Collection are $15. The Sandisfield Arts Center is located on Route 57 at Hammertown Road, in Sandisfield, Mass. For information call (413) 258-3309.
—By Murdoch McBride