More than a Role- Actor Finds Purpose and Healing Rodney Coe is Jonah
It’s the thirty-second book in the Old Testament where the prophet Jonah refuses to follow the Lord. Because of his disobedience, Jonah ended up being swallowed by an enormous fish at sea. Three days later, the fish coughed him up and God convinced Jonah to obey and carry out His plan. Throughout the book, God’s mercy and grace are shown.
This story has been adapted for both the stage and screen by Sight & Sound Theaters. Jonah: On Stage! has massive sets, colorful costumes and a 40-foot whale featured in an underwater scene. Actor Rodney Coe stars as Jonah in both.
Coe has quite an incredible story of his own. After earning a full ride scholarship, graduating college and landing in New York City and performing in theatre in his early twenties, his dream came to a sudden halt. One night on his way home he was mugged and severely beaten. He was left barely alive with brain damage and the need for facial reconstructive surgery. Struggling to make ends meet with limited cognitive ability, he resolved to filling popcorn at a movie theater concession stand. However, God had a different plan. Through a miraculous reversal, Coe found himself not just with the opportunity to act again, but eventually cast in a leading role. Risen caught up with Coe to hear about what it means to see his life come full circle.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Let’s start with how you developed your passion for acting.
Rodney Coe: I’d always loved music and to sing, but my first real intro to theater was in high school. When I was in fifth grade I had developed epilepsy. I went from normal classes to having to take special needs classes,all the way through junior high, and even in high school. I think it was my freshman year in high school, at Greenfield Central in Indiana, and my [special needs] classroom was right across the hall from the drama classroom.
I had to go to the restroom and I was coming back and Mr. Roads had his door open. I heard something in his classroom that sounded interesting so I stopped and sort of peaked in and he was giving a long monologue, and it was incredible. He was becoming different characters and I’d never seen anything like it. Before I knew what I had done, I snuck into the back of his class and I sat behind everybody else’s desks on the floor. All the desks were facing a corner where he had a little stage built up for the students when they gave their speeches and stuff. I was just mesmerized. Then the bell rang, and all the students were leaving, but they had to step over me, and I was super embarrassed. I tried to get out of there, and Mr. Roads stopped me before I did asking, “What are you doing?” I said, “I was going to class and I heard what you were doing and it sounded interesting.” And he said, “You should come audition for the school show.” I said, “No.” And then I left his room and I went across the hall and he saw me go into the special needs class. For some reason that struck him as odd. He didn’t see me as that, he saw me as a kid who loved theater. Or was at least drawn to this.
He kept asking and asking and asking and finally he convinced me [to audition], and that was it. I was bit. I got cast in the show and actually had lines. But when I was on stage and when I was at rehearsal, whenever I was performing lines or singing, I was completely and totally seizure free. It was crazy. I think because it was just using a different part of my brain. I always felt the most myself; I felt the most free when I was on stage being somebody else.
RM: Your skill developed and you earned a full ride scholarship to college, moved to New York and started landing roles relatively quickly. How did it feel to move to the mecca of theater and actually be living out your dream?
RC: It was mind blowing. I didn’t know what to expect. When I first got to New York I didn’t leave the apartment for about a week and a half. [Laughter] I grew up in a farm community and I had this dream, “I’m going to do theater.” Then I got to New York, this city that never sleeps and it was just so intense. I was used to the sound of crickets and there I always heard horns and people yelling outside because I lived at 49th Street in the thick of Times Square.
It was overwhelming, but then I had this buddy that I had met and he said that if you go to a Broadway show during intermission, there’s always people leaving and they will give you their tickets so you can go in and watch the second half of the show. So I started doing that on a regular basis. It was incredible. All of a sudden I was being exposed to the best of the best. I wasn’t doing the work myself but being around good work helps.
RM: What did your faith look like at this point in your life?
RC: In the midst of all of this, I wasn’t really a believer. I grew up in a Christian home, but I didn’t trust the Lord at all. When I was in high school, I had a friend who took his own life. He told me in his own way that he was going to do so and I didn’t believe him. Then, when I was in college the same thing happened. In college it wasn’t as clear, but had I had the eyes to see, I would’ve noticed. And I didn’t. So, I blamed myself for both of those. It was like this tape in my head that I couldn’t turn off, and I realized when I drank, or when I was smoking weed, or when I was doing whatever, I could kind of silence the stuff that was going on in my head. I was drinking a lot. I found myself in a place where I was wanting to drink more alone than I was socially; because when I was alone is when it got louder in my head. I just felt condemnation and guilt and all that.
I met a buddy when I was in New York who I had directed back in Indiana out of college. And this guy, he had just changed completely. I don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail, but I’ll say he struggled with his identity. And when I ran into him, he said that wasn’t an issue anymore. That just struck me as very odd that I hadn’t seen that before. Once people go a certain way they typically stay there. And the thing that he said was, he came to the realization that just because he might struggle with something that wasn’t his identity and he realized that who God said he was, was his identity. And that rocked me. It pulled me, I didn’t know what to do with it.
He kept inviting me to go to church, go to church, go to church, and I said no. Finally, he invited me to a party, and so I went to the party. It was a seventies-themed party. There was dancing, there was music, there was food, but there was no alcohol – there was no back room to this party. There was nothing shady, and these people were genuinely happy, without anything extra. There was something different about them, and I didn’t know what it was. After the party I said, “Whatever this is I want it.” And he said, “It’s Jesus. This is my church.” And I said, “I’m in, let’s go.” We went to a Bible study and I ended up giving my life to the Lord and got baptized in a claw-foot bathtub, in [what is] now Washington Heights, at midnight. Because once I made the decision I was like, “I ain’t waiting!”
There was dancing,there was music, there was food, but there was no alcohol – there was no back roomto this party.
RM: Just for timeline purposes, you getting baptized and giving your life to the Lord was in your twenties?
RC: Yes, in my twenties and one month prior to the [mugging.]
RM: Let’s talk about that tragic event. You were mugged and beaten so severely you suffered some brain damage and needed facial reconstructive surgery. What are you willing to share with us about that night, and then about the idea of being told you might not act again?
RC: I’m out on a date with this girl. Now mind you, I’d given my life to the Lord, but I hadn’t given the bottle to the Lord yet. We go to a concert and get something to eat afterwards. I drop her off at her place and then I went straight to a bar. I wouldn’t say I was lit, but I was definitely feeling good.
[After the bar] I’m coming home and got off the subway and I got mugged by three guys, one of whom had a small metal baseball bat. They robbed me. Once I was down, I got clocked in the back of the head first, went down, and then after that, they just beat the tar out of me.
So the left side of my face was damaged, my teeth were a mess, but more importantly than all of that – that was just cosmetic type stuff – was the brain damage. The brain damage was the lasting part. I couldn’t do much. I didn’t leave my apartment after I got out of the hospital for a while just because I was afraid to. But at the same time, I was afraid to leave New York because my identity, at this point, was still wrapped up in what I did, not who I was.
I got to this place where I finally had to leave the apartment. For a while there I was sort of nonverbal, but at this point I could speak. Some of that was trauma, some of that was the brain injury, but I had to get a job someplace and I certainly couldn’t do the things that I had been doing. I went to Sony Theater on Broadway and applied to be essentially like a soda jerk; somebody working behind the counter. But I couldn’t even do that. I couldn’t fill the drinks, there were too many options. Small, medium, large, diet, not – I couldn’t do it. I was dropping things; it was making my head hurt. There were migraines off-and-on daily, but off-and-on all day for five years after this.
When I came in, mind you, I looked like Quasimodo. The whites of my eyes were still red because they popped all the blood vessels from the blunt force trauma. There was still swelling and my jaw was a mess. Some of my teeth had been worked on, but not all of them. I didn’t look right. They were kind and gave me a job, but they knew something had happened and I shared with them because I had to; they had questions.
So eventually they put me at the popcorn popper. I could take a scoop of popcorn and put it in. They were incredibly gracious to me. That was literally all I could do.
Eventually, I left. I was a mess, and in the midst of all that, I was still drinking. I was still self-medicating. Now there were just more voices in my head quite frankly. I wasn’t able to do what I did anymore. I ended up moving to Minnesota to follow a girl. There I ended up getting some physical therapy and some occupational therapy off-and-on.
There were all these moments where the Lord was showing up and taking care of me along the way. The only thing that brought me any solace was getting into the Word. Specifically, the book of Romans. Romans 8 was my cling-to. That whole chapter. “Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I needed to hear that on a regular basis, because I was beating myself up.
I knew what it was liketo run from the Lord. I knew what itwas like to live in fear. I was makingall my decisions for all the wrongreasons, and so was Jonah.
RM: Having gone through what you have, what does it mean to you to be back on stage in a leading role and this time it’s Kingdom building? Playing Jonah on stage, and now on-screen for the theatrical event.
RC: It’s incredible. The beauty of getting to do this specific role is that I was able to bring so much of what I had just gone through to the role. I knew what it was like to run from the Lord. I knew what it was like to live in fear. I was making all my decisions for all the wrong reasons, and so was Jonah.
I was able to pull from a deeper well because I went through all of this. And the funny thing is for years I honestly thought that it was the Lord who made all of this lousy stuff happen to me. And then I finally had this moment, about five years after… where I saw the entire mugging… I was crying out to the Lord and I was like “Lord I don’t get it.” Thinking, “What is the point? I don’t get it.” I’m angry, and He allows me to see this whole thing from above, and I see this person that I don’t know. The person was all white. There were arms, there were legs, but I didn’t see facial features, it was just light, appearing in the middle of these three guys, and touched them, and that’s when they left. And I didn’t know how I got from where I got mugged to my apartment, because I shouldn’t have been able to walk, just because of how rocked I was. And in this vision, this person, this thing, picks me up, carries me, sets me down at my apartment, right at the door, touches my face, and said, “This will make you stronger.” And then was gone.
There was some post-traumatic stress there too. After I got jacked in the back of the head, everything went white and then it went black, but I could still hear it all. That was what would replay when the migraines would be at their worst. But from that moment on, there was never another migraine, and I realized at that moment that I had been blaming God for all of the stuff that happened in my life. Thinking that it was Him — that either He was distant or He made it happen — when it was the exact opposite. He was the one that was bringing me through it, and making me stronger through it, and essentially changing my character because I needed it. I needed to know who I was. I needed to know my identity in Christ. Being brought to the bottom there is a choice, you can either stay down there, or you can cling to the one who can take you out of anything. And I just chose to do that, and He did.
So, getting to play Jonah has been a lot of fun. This show is a blast. In this show there is a song at the end, the princess sings of Nineveh. She sings, “I’m free.” It’s just a song about the Ninevites accepting God and being set free, even though they don’t know if the Lord is going to destroy them yet. And after all that time has passed, Jonah comes around at the very end and sings the same song because he realizes who he is, and whose he is. To get to do that, eight, nine times a week now for years has been a huge part of my own walk, and my own emotional recovery and all that as well. I get to bless people with it, and yet the Lord continues to bless me with the work that I do. It’s incredible. I wouldn’t do it for anybody else. I don’t know that I would go back to theater for anything unless it was brought forth from the Lord.
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