Leslie Joy Coleman doesn't flinch when it comes to portraying outspoken Western heroine...
FARMINGTON — Veteran Albuquerque actress Leslie Joy Coleman says she's had the chance to portray a lot of interesting characters over the years — the kinds of roles that almost any actor would savor.
But one of them stands out.
"There are very few characters you get to portray, characters you have such an affinity with, that you feel like you get to step into their shoes," Coleman said of her role as the legendary frontier figure Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary in "Calamity Jane Talks to Tourists," which Coleman will perform this weekend on the San Juan College campus as part of the school's Chautauqua Series.
Coleman said it customarily takes her a good deal of time to feel comfortable in a new role, but when she assumed the mantle of Calamity Jane, there was no such adjustment period.
"It wasn't hard to do at first, even though the role requires a ton of energy," she said by phone last week from Albuquerque. "It's like slipping on your favorite coat. (Taking on a new role) is usually a lot of work, and you have to really be focused so you're not coming out of the moment. But with her, I don't feel like I'm coming out of the moment at all."
If it sounds like Coleman was born to play Calamity Jane, perhaps she was. The story of how she came to take on the role carries with it a certain sense of destiny.
Nearly 15 years ago, Coleman was part of a melodrama company that performed in Madrid, N.M. A visiting New York playwright named Brad Gromelski happened to be visiting the former mining community, now a tourist stop, on the Turquoise Trail between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and he and Coleman struck up a conversation one day about their work. Gromelski told her he had written a play about Calamity Jane, explaining that he thought she'd be perfect for the role. He wound up sending her a manuscript, but the project didn't appeal to Coleman at the time, and she put it aside, quickly forgetting about it.
A dozen years later, the Madrid company folded, and Coleman — who, at that point, was running the Southwest Rural Theatre Project (swrtp.org), a nonprofit theatrical, performance-based organization dedicated to bringing live theater experience to rural areas in the region — acquired its library. Combing through the collection one day, she came across the Calamity Jane manuscript and found tucked inside it a letter to her from Gromelski indicating she was welcome to the rights to produce it. Coleman hadn't bothered to keep in touch with Gromelski since their meeting in Madrid, but under his signature at the bottom of the letter, the playwright had included his name and address.
Coleman called, the number, and, sure enough, Gromelski answered. Coleman told him who she was, Gromelski remembered their connection, and, by the end of the conversation, Coleman had once again gotten the author's blessing to produce "Calamity Jane Talks to Tourists." She did exactly that for a four-week run at the SWRTP.
"I like telling everybody the story," Coleman said, acknowledging its unlikely nature.
Eventually, Coleman pared the show down from an hour to 45 minutes and had it accepted for the New Mexico Humanities Council's chautauqua program. She's been performing it around the state since June 2013.
As much as she enjoys the portrayal, Calamity Jane is not an easy character to get a real handle on, Coleman said. As is the case with many of the larger-than-life figures who emerged from the frontier period of the American West, there's a blurry line between fact and fiction. In other words, much of what is commonly believed about her has been greatly exaggerated or is simply untrue, Coleman said.
"Even the historians don't have a lot they can say is fact," Coleman said, describing her efforts to research Calamity Jane when she took on the role. "Much of what we know about her is what she said herself, and much is based on folklore or hearsay."
Coleman said many of the legendary tales that were attributed to Calamity Jane may or may not have happened to other women who assumed her identity.
"She got a lot of the blame for what a lot of those folks did," Coleman said.
Even so, it is widely regarded as true that Calamity Jane was one of the boldest, and most outspoken and adventurous women to emerge from that time and place. She lived up and down the frontier, wore men's clothing, worked jobs that traditionally were held only by men and was known to enjoy having a drink or three while spinning long-winded yarns that featured herself as the heroine, perhaps the source of much of the misinformation about her that persists to this day. She was particularly well known for her colorful vocabulary, which Coleman said has been watered down for the purposes of this show.
"Actually, this is completely PG," she said. "There's no foul language."
But there are numerous and elaborate colloquialisms — a hallmark of Calamity Jane's speech and writing — as well as plentiful references to her drinking and her attraction to Wild Bill Hickok, the noted gunfighter who was shot from behind in a saloon in Deadwood in the Dakota Territory in 1876. Contrary to the widely held perception, Coleman said, the two knew each other only a short time and were never linked romantically, with Hickok viewing Calamity Jane mostly as a pest — and a rather unattractive one, at that — despite her well-documented affection for him.
It is the less-glamorous aspects of Calamity Jane's character that Coleman finds intriguing. In what would seem to be a direct contradiction to her nickname, Calamity Jane was known far and wide for her compassion, selflessness and nurturing nature.
"She was an orphan, and yet, when she became an adult woman, she nursed people who were dying all around her in Deadwood," Coleman said. "She cared about people, but she didn't want anybody to know. She tried to be all gruff, but she was actually a very sweet, caring person."
All that would seem to add up to an individual who was far more complex and admirable than history usually gives her credit for being. Coleman thinks Calamity Jane is well worth remembering, even among a cast of dominating male characters that included the likes of Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custer.
"I think she contributed a great deal to women being able to speak their mind and get outside that patriarchal society," she said. "It was difficult to be a female during that period of time and do anything besides what women traditionally did. But she said, 'No, we are so much more than that.'"
In that respect, it is unfortunate that the popular notion of Calamity Jane is one of a one-dimensional, cartoonish figure. Coleman chalks that up in large part to human nature.
"That's what happens to everybody who is ahead of their time and who breaks out of the mold," she said. "And that's why it's important to remember these people."
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