From Depth of Tragedy Comes New Solo Comedy
August 08, 2006
Back Stage Magazine
By Wendy Parker
In the first monologue of The Neon Man and Me, his one-person show, Richmonder Slash Coleman talks about the elephant
in the room — what everyone tiptoes around but won't speak about. He's talking about the death of his best friend,
Roanoke artist Mark Jamison, who was electrocuted on a power line while installing a neon sign. For those who knew
Jamison, the subject of his death is enormous, the silence surrounding it maybe even more so.
Photo: Tania Barricklo
But as the show continues, Coleman makes clear that he also won't ignore the elephant any longer — that he'll sing, laugh, and discuss Jamison's death
as long as anyone will listen. Indeed, more than a year since his friend's tragic death, Coleman's "spiritual rock 'n' roll comedy about best friends" has
brought him more than just personal catharsis. The show has been covered on National Public Radio, won the Groucho Award for Best One Man
Comedy of 2005 (bestowed by Comedy Sportz Improv Theater to Richmond playwrights and comedians), and is, he says, soon to be a special on PBS.
In the meantime, Coleman is spending his summer performing the piece around the country. His next stop is the San Francisco Fringe Festival (Sept. 9-17).
Last fall, The Neon Man and Me premiered at Mill Mountain Theater in Roanoke, Va., which is two blocks from where Jamison's neon sign shop was
located. To date, the show has raised more than $11,000 for Virginia nonprofit organizations as well as an educational fund Coleman set up to help take
care of his late friend's young son.
There are other ways in which Coleman is channeling his success. This fall, for example, he'll take The Neon Man and Me, in which he plays some 30
characters, into Virginia classrooms, where he hopes to make the subject of profound loss something students can talk about. A former teacher and
counselor, the classroom for Coleman is a natural venue — he originally developed sections of the play in Virginia high schools, whittling the play down
to 27 pages from 340. The result: a quirky, high-energy 75-minute show not only punctuated by original songs and a multitude of characters, but wacky
wit and imaginative storytelling. Coleman's writing not only deals with Jamison's tragic death, but it explores an unlikely 20-year friendship between
himself, a Southern Jew, and Jamison, who was Pentecostal. They became inseparable pals in college, playing in a jazz band.
Coleman's discusses his workshop process freely and often, not to mention the fact that he wasn't shy about seeking input from students. How did he
gain access to high schools? "I made calls and said, 'I'm a playwright and I have a new work and I'd like to share it with your students — and I'm free,' "
Photo: Tania Barricklo
That kind of directness comes easily to Coleman, who says he has always been on a quest to live the life of an
artist. It's in his blood: his grandfather danced at the Moulin Rouge, his grandmother was a watercolorist, and his
father is a sculptor and painter. At 38, Coleman's résumé reads as if he's much older: he has worked as a standup
comedian, painter, concert pianist, art therapist, massage therapist, upholsterer, educator, and writer — his output
includes songs, plays, fiction, nonfiction, magazine articles, and four novels. He holds a B.A. in English from
Radford University, a M.A. in education from Columbia College, has taught preschoolers in Montessori schools,
students in college, and trained teachers in early-childhood development. He has also taught writing, anatomy,
kinesiology, massage techniques, behavior modification, and sign language.
In a sense, he says, he began to prepare for writing The Neon Man and Me even before Jamison's death. It was
five years ago, he says, when out of frustration he threw his unpublished manuscripts into a recycling bin. "What
was missing in every novel," Coleman recalls, "was too much distance in what was truth." So he joined a writer's
group and then, following Jamison's death, had a breakthrough. "The form it took was a one-person show told in the
first person [with] a beginning, middle, and end." As the various pieces of The Neon Man and Me fell into place, the
personal nature of the story propelled Coleman to perform it on stage.
Early on, Coleman simply set out to craft a care package for Jamison's son so he might someday know more about
his father. But then, after pouring his grief into words, The Neon Man and Me took on a life of its own. It has also, he
says, kept Jamison's spirit alive — perhaps no greater gift that a best friend could give.