One night, nearly twenty years ago, Rodney Coe lay on a Spanish Harlem sidewalk, brutally beaten, bloody, concussed, and left for dead. But in one week, the actor who never believed he would stand on stage again will powerfully portray the grace of God through the story of Sight & Sound Theatre’s Jonah On Stage, coming to movie theaters everywhere via Fathom Events.
Coe grew up in a Christian home on a farm, but faith didn’t prevent the epileptic seizures that plagued him beginning in the fifth grade. Sent to a special classroom, where teachers were more prepared to handle his medications and seizures, Coe wasn’t the type of student that seemed destined for theatrical productions. After sneaking into the back of Mr. Rhodes’ drama class as the teacher provided a compelling monologue, the middle school student was captivated. Rhodes took a special interest in the young man who was awestruck by the process of acting, and pushed him to audition, unlocking a beautiful part of Coe’s mind: On stage, the seizures went away.
Enrolling at the University of Indianapolis in 1991, Coe participated in a program for people exploring the arts, specifically aimed at people with reading disorders, epilepsy, and other roadblocks to normal integration. Then another ‘moment’ happened: the seizures disappeared one day, completely.
“It was like I had been looking through cheesecloth and suddenly I could see clearly,” Coe recalled. “I called my mother, and she told me not to stop taking my meds, but I did that day, because I’ve always been a troublemaker! It was like my mind was super clear. My mind wasn’t photographic but it almost was. I would read something twice and be able to put it down and do it from memory, off book. People realized they could spend more time with me building the character because I already learned the lines.”
Transferring to Ball State University for musical theater, Coe found himself surrounded by more people who were interested in the same thing he was. But he still found tragedy at BSU, where a classmate alluded to committing suicide just days before taking his own life. Having already lost a friend to suicide in high school, this loss pushed Coe further into the party scene, even to the point of using alcohol and drugs on his own to drive away the thoughts in his head.
“Theatrically, I was doing well,” Coe says now, “but my private life was a mess. I masked it pretty well - I always smelled like an Altoid.”
After graduation, Coe moved to New York, pursuing his acting dreams, and within three months, he was earning top billing. But in 2000, Coe attended a Willie Nelson concert, dropped his date off at her apartment, and stopped in at the local bar for a few drinks. The alcohol was not the disaster his story might imply, but the walk home was nearly murderous.
“At around 2 a.m., I’m coming home and hear footsteps behind me and cracked in the head with a baseball bat,” Coe remembers. “It was three guys who stomped my face, took my wallet, my keys, aiming at a two-for-one with robbing me on the street and robbing my home while no one is there. I’m bleeding out on the pavement, with my lip as a flap, the side of my face messed up, and brain damage.”
The subsequent injuries led to significant surgery on Coe’s face and jaw, and he retreated to his apartment for a month. Cutting off communication with the outside world, he lost all work he’d previously set up, and lacked the ability to communicate orally for several weeks.
“I didn’t want to leave the city because I didn’t want to leave as a failure. My identity was wrapped up in what I did on stage, not in who I was in the Lord. I had given my life to the Lord a month before but my behavior hadn’t changed,” Coe shared with conviction.
While victim services paid for Coe’s surgery, his other bills piled up. His appearance mirrored that of Quasimodo in his own mind, and he found work stuffing popcorn buckets at a local movie theater after failing at concessions and ticket taking. His mental process would simply not allow him to coordinate multiple factors, like a choice in soft drink or size beverage.
“I’d gone from working in the best theaters to barely getting a job in a movie theater. But then, there was a girl. There’s always a girl!”
Moving to Minnesota, Coe suffered from cluster migraines as a result of the trauma. Doctors told him he could take medicine to numb the pain but that the medicine would prevent his brain from recovering from the trauma quickly. So Coe accepted the pain.
“It’s been five years since I got mugged when I moved there,” Coe said, “and the Lord is rebuilding my character. The choices I was making were so different now. The only thing that brought me any peace was the Word.”
“Romans 8 is my favorite chapter. The farther I got in, the more I kept digging. I started to feel like this thing, this pattern in the Word, that it didn’t matter what a man had done in his past, the Lord had used him anyway - with Moses, Jonah, the prophets, Saul to Paul. I started to cling to that idea, that there was something more to this. A friend started to talk to me about this - that my past was something to move passed. I didn’t know how to see myself as God saw me, as his son and someone of value. Everything changed because I wasn’t doing drugs anymore, and I didn’t think that my friends had died because of our lifestyle. But I was still having these migraines.”
Sitting on the bathroom floor in the grip of a migraine, having just thrown up, Coe cried out, “Lord, what’s the point of this?” In his pain and suffering, he recalls now a vision of his mugging from above, like an out-of-body experience. He recalled in each Post Traumatic Stress Disorder event since the beating the sound of the bat hitting the ground twice, but it had never made sense to him until this moment.
“When I got mugged, everything went really white, then black, and then just sound. They had used a metal baseball bat, and remembered hearing it hit the ground twice. This time, it was like a camera jib where I lifted up out of myself - I saw myself hit, saw them rifle through my pockets, and saw the guy go to lift the bat again to finish me off.”
“I saw a person of light - not an angel like most people describe, there were no wings - appear in the middle of the three of them, touch them, and they left. The sound when he dropped the bat for the second time all matched up. This person picks me up and starts to carry me to my apartment a block from where I’d been mugged, sat me down, touched my face, and said, ‘This will all make you stronger’.”
True to his memories from the event, a seventy-three-year old neighbor found him sitting on the floor outside the apartment. She refused to touch him, fearing that the blood he was covered with carried AIDS, but she called for help.
Emerging out of his transformative vision, Coe has been migraine free since then, a dozen years later. Recognizing that he had misjudged the character of God, that God was working for his good and protection rather than destruction and punishment, Coe set out to re-enter the theater, this time as a stage helper. From this point forward, Coe saw the experiences as times where God actually walked him through it, setting him up for success each time.
Like the time he applied for a job doing lighting on the same day that the tech director was fired and was offered the job.
Like the time his acting resume was discovered and he was offered a starring role in A Midsommer Night’s Dream.
Like the time he applied for a chorus spot in a Minneapolis-based production of The Music Man and was called back for the part of Harold Hill.
“The Lord was so in the details! They say the devil is in the details but that’s a lie; God is in the details,” Coe said from his home in Branson, Missouri this week. Ending up in the Miracle Theater in Pigeon Forge, TN, Coe found his way to Sight & Sound Theatres, emerging as the lead in Jonah, before it ever was a Fathom Event. He says he understands the part, thanks to his amazing journey.
“I know what’s like to be so angry, to run from the Lord,” he mused. “You don’t allow the Lord to do what he wants to do. There was a whole lot of Jonah in me. When I sang in the audition, i sang it first; the artistic director said, ‘I know you can sing it but now I want you to let it all out.’ There was a lot of me fighting, and working through, but I was on the other side when I auditioned. I saw that God had another plan.”
“Singing ‘I’m Free’ at the end; it’s a great way to end the day. Seeing what the Lord has done, free from my addiction, my anger, my past. As believers, sometimes we’re afraid to be vulnerable - we’re afraid of how people will see us. When you’re ministering to others and you’re still a mess, you get to see God moving.”
On the eve of Coe’s biggest curtain call ever, he has an eye for the way that audiences will see Jonah’s story, even as he’s in his second year in Branson working on Moses. And then there’s the event he thinks will blow people’s minds, as Sight & Sound will present “Jesus” next year, with a Don Harper score, a rain curtain, Peter walking on water, and other highlights of Jesus’ ministry.
Sometimes, the bloodied pavement in Spanish Harlem must seem like a lifetime away, but for Coe, there’s no need to look back. He’s too busy recognizing God in the details, every step of the way.