PATERSON, NJ - Waiting at his usual booth at Mr. G’s in Paterson, Lewis Cole, 69, wore a red tie, blue jeans, and a huge smile. His welcoming energy lit up the diner, especially when he joked with the waitress. A talkative storyteller, Cole, also known as Buddy to family and friends, is passionate, encouraging, and savvy.
Born in rural Hopkins, South Carolina in 1949, Cole grew up in the cotton fields. He suffered severe racial injustices in the Jim Crow south, he said, especially during Hopkins’ economic downturn. To escape poor financial conditions, Cole’s uncle, John Cole, moved to Paterson to find an industrial job in 1931.
“Out of the fields, from $2 a day, that’s $14 a week, to maybe $100 a week -- that’s a lot of money there,” says Cole about the opportunities for black men in Paterson at the time. “It’s one of these towns that has served us, and I like to think we serve it well.”
Cole, who is the executive director of the Paterson-based NOW Theatre, became passionate about dramatic arts in elementary school. He was cast in the fourth grade Easter play, but refused to memorize his lines. His teacher, Mrs. Metts, was frustrated and told him to put his mind to it and focus, advising that he never knew what he will pursue in life.
“She had such a vision, and to me, that was really, really, the start of really, really loving storytelling,” Cole says. “That concept cemented in my mind to this very day.”
After graduating from Hopkins High School and moving to New Jersey, Cole served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1972. He then attended William Paterson University for Theater Arts through the GI Bill. While taking night classes, he labored in the Witco Chemical plant in Paterson during the day. In 1974, Cole was encouraged to transfer to the Dramatic Workshop Theater in New York City, a conservatory school for theater and drama, after performing in The Time of Your Life with renowned actor Pat Hingle.
“There were audience members who came up to me after the production, and these are their words: ‘wow, we really enjoyed your character’,” he said. The character Cole played discovered his purpose through music, and he claimed audience members told him he had such a gift playing the piano. He was honored, but there was a catch.
“I wasn’t actually playing. I wasn’t playing because I don’t play instruments!” he laughed.
A proud father of two daughters, Tonia Cole, a first grade teacher, and Sharon Cole Tucker, an attorney, and husband to Mary Cole, Cole considers himself to be a black rights activist. Through his productions, Cole said, he fights to bring representation to African Americans in cultural programs. Specifically, he attempts to use theater arts to improve urban conditions, which is exemplified through his adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Zooman and The Sign, which is about troubled, black teen named Zooman that murders a 12-year-old black girl.
“If Zooman is shooting up innocent people because he has an unseen issue with the institution of racism, by doing these plays, we might be able to get the potential Zoomans in that play,” says Cole. “Let’s dissect this, let’s see what this character’s problem is.”
In addition to making social commentary through his productions, Cole has worked to emphasize the importance of the arts in education. He served as chair of the City of Paterson Grass Roots Cultural Arts Commission (GRAC), which was formed on June 13, 2012 by an ordinance Mayor Andre Sayegh introduced while representing the 6th Ward on the council. The 18-member body was charged with making sure that Paterson continues to be known as a city that is “passionate about the arts”, specifically through sustaining artists monetarily and advocating for arts programs in Paterson’s schools.
The GRAC had become dormant until Sayegh, as mayor, reconstituted it in 2018.
“As a teacher, I can say that arts education is an invaluable tool that all students in all schools should receive,” says Tonia. “My dad wants to creatively educate through the arts with a curriculum that can support students from preschool to high school. It is a tough job but somebody with experience and credibility needs to be the spokesperson for this important topic, and that person is my dad.”
Through his hard work, Cole has impacted and inspired many people. Tonia explains that she has been incredibly fortunate to have him as her father.
“My father is consistently supportive with my professional and entrepreneurial aspirations reminding me to align myself to help others without draining myself,” she said to TAPinto Paterson. “My father is spiritually encouraging because he reminds me there are ups and downs in life and that these events are the paths to my success. My dad exudes confidence and intelligence that I was always in awe with as a child and now I can say that as an adult I inherited the same qualities as well.”
NOW Theatre’s funding has declined in recent years because grant money has run out. Cole is currently raising money for his theatre by selling products that celebrate African American history. Products include: t-shirts of antislavery and abolitionist writers and poets from the early 1800s to the 20th century, a short, locally shot film called Woman to Woman, a book of blues poetry called Black Gold, and audio recordings of Langston Hugh’s Jessie Be Simple.
Cole emphasizes the importance of knowing black history in his products.
“If you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you’re going,” he says. “You’re like a ship without a rudder if you don’t know your history.”
Casey Ferrante is entering her second year at Georgetown and is an intern for TAPinto Paterson.
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