For the first few minutes he was onstage, he seemed to have a hard time finding his groove. The audience from Open High School was restive. Richmond’s celebrity storyteller stuttered over a few lines. From the back, one student even heckled a little. Difficult as it might be to believe, Slash Coleman, seasoned performer – veteran of hundreds of shows before all manner of audiences – was nervous.
“I’m not much fun to hang out with before a show,” Coleman had admitted a few days beforehand. “The butterflies are pretty bad.”
Sometimes, though, fumbling for your voice can be useful, especially when you’re talking to teenagers. They had come expecting someone other – grownup, professional, polished – and found instead someone a little more like them. Every teen fears public embarrassment. Coleman had touched that rail, and in so doing had gained a little street cred.
It was street cred rooted in Coleman’s own adolescent identity struggle.
“I grew up with relatives from nearly a dozen different countries,” Coleman says of his patchwork European heritage, “hearing all these accents in my house.”
His Jewish heritage proved the most difficult for him to understand. “In terms of identity, the topic has been so important to me because I was required to hide my own religious identity for so long. Having a mom who was a Holocaust survivor say if I ever told anyone I was Jewish I would die, sealed that idea into my head. Getting beat up in middle school for being Jewish sealed it even more deeply.”
Coleman calls it growing up in the “Jewish closet.” His experience was so profound that he now performs an entire program, “Chaidentity,” designed to help Jewish teens find, claim, and keep their identities in a world where God sometimes seems more absent than present.
Even his name is a tribute to that struggle.When he was thirteen he took all of his Bar Mitzvah money and legally changed his name to Slash. It was a mash-up of his two favorite Hebrew letters, S and L, and his grandfather’s first name, Ash. Plus, he adds, “I just thought it sounded cool.”
Spoken just like a teenager.
One can’t help but wonder, however, if Slash also hints at the duality the young Coleman felt in his identity: claiming his heritage, but at the same time disguising it in a name that sounded cool when he made the switch some thirty years ago. Coleman recognizes that, a lot like a name change, young people try on radically different personalities on their way to maturity.
“Engaging [teens] in productive explorations of honesty, respect, responsibility, and integrity means meeting them where they are,” explains Coleman. “They need a safe space in which to operate, without feeling uncomfortable or judged.”
For writer/storyteller/singer Coleman, that space is in front of an audience. As a storyteller, he has appeared on stages across the country, from Los Angeles to Off-Broadway theaters in New York City to the National Storytelling Conference in Tennessee. His two-part workshop, “Make More Money with Your Art,” has been featured on National Public Radio, as well as at dozens of universities, conferences, and community art organizations. His written work has been featured in an anthology about dating in the online age.
His shows have won awards and critical acclaim. He has been named to Style Weekly’s Top 40 under 40, and has, through his performances, raised over $80,000 for non-profit agencies.
To date, his signature achievement is “The Neon Man and Me,” a one-man show about his best friend, Mark James, that is a memoir of friendship, grief, and Healing in the aftermath of tragedy.
The show begins with Coleman meeting Mark at a party, and follows their relationship across the years. Coleman vagabonds about the country; Mark remains close to home, working as a neon artist in Roanoke. As Coleman wanders through odd jobs and failed relationships, Mark is the true north on his emotional compass.One morning in Los Angeles, fifteen years after he set out in search of himself, Coleman decides it’s time to finally follow the path to where his compass has always pointed.
He calls Mark, but there’s no answer. He leaves a message. “Hey, Buddy. I’m coming home. I’m finally coming home.”
Only later does Coleman discover that the very morning he left that message, Mark was killed in an accident, leaving behind a girlfriend and an unborn son.
“I wanted this child to know his father,” says Coleman, “and so I started writing down my memories of Mark.” For the next year he poured those memories and his grief into 225 pages that he intended to give to the child one day.
He wrote songs, as well, to fill the spaces words couldn’t reach.
Finally, when he had passed through his solitary grief, Coleman began talking. First, to a few close friends, and then, by degrees, to larger audiences, and the onehour storytelling and music show known as “The Neon Man and Me” emerged.
The show moves from the sweetly awful awkwardness of late adolescence deep into the crucible of experiences that forge our adult personalities. In many ways, it’s a time-lapse motion picture of growing up.
Like much of Coleman’s work, “The Neon Man and Me” is not, strictly Speaking, a show designed for young audiences, but its themes resonate strongly with young people.
The same can be said of Coleman’s most recent creation, “The Last American Gladiator.” “Gladiator,” however, is more about dreams than death, and it was selections from this show that he was performing at Open High, when things had gotten off to such a rocky start.
It was only a matter of minutes before Coleman found his zone and was moving smoothly along, and both Coleman and his audience were now in the safe space his vulnerable first moments had opened up. Everyone could take a break from self-judging and, through Coleman’s funny, offbeat, pointed stories, consider what it means to dream, to step into unfamiliar skins, to stir the pot of strange, scary, sometimes smelly ingredients that somehow get mixed in the just the right proportions to form a grownup.
In other words, the audience was his. Even the heckler in the back was laughing at all the right things.
When Coleman picked up his guitar for his second song, an eerie glow began to grow in the room. Cell phones. Students were waving their cell phones in the air the way an earlier generation once waved cigarette lighters.
One could almost expect the standard audience call for “Freebird.”
It was a surreal moment. A one-man writer/storyteller/singer strumming a six-string at a school assembly in a basement auditorium, but there was his teenaged audience, waving and swaying like it was an arena rock concert.
A dream? Maybe. But why not try on that dream for a few moments? Slip into that skin. Slash Coleman says it’s okay to explore what it feels like to be this/that/ the other. See? He’s there already, in the middle of it all.