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A scene from the Richmond theater production The War at Home with actors Michele Wells (left), Derek Odom (center), and Maurice Nunn (right). (Photo by Brittany Kirstin)

‘The War at Home’ debuts in Richmond

on September 30, 2015

As a high school theater student, Michelle Wells was told that there was no place for the type of stories she wanted to tell. So she left her hometown and traveled around the world, looking for her voice and an audience willing to listen. Now, back home in Richmond, she seems to have found both her voice and her audience.

Her theater production, The War at Home, debuted last week at the East Bay Performing Arts Center. Set in Alabama in the late 1940s, the play revolves around the struggles of a close-knit network of African-American family and friends in a rural town. Playing at just over two hours, it is a riveting, entertaining time.

This is Wells’ first stage production. The idea for the play came from a mentor who connected her with Margaret A. Burnham, a law professor who founded the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University in Boston. The project was set up to document racial hate crimes in the South from 1930 to 1970, and to seek remedies. While studying in London at Goldsmith College, Wells developed one of the cold cases from the project into her play, which won the “Best Play Award” at the Atlanta Black Arts Festival.

In the Richmond production, Wells played the role of Nellie Thornton, her main character, who is readjusting to life after World War II while trying to save her family and farm.

Brigitte Edington played Nellie’s best friend, Anne DuBois, and was particularly authentic. Eighteen-year-old Nya McDowell’s performance as a forlorn prostitute songstress was the showstopper.

Wells’ presentation of design, dialect and culture of the post-war era was striking. The staging and costumes were also well done, giving the audience the impression of being transported back to another time.

Although a Richmond native, Wells said she feels a strong connection with her family’s Louisiana roots. Her local church, Bethlehem Baptist, is an “enclave of Southern culture,” she said. “A lot of the Richmond black community has its roots mostly from the South.”

Finding inspiration and carving out a career in the arts in Richmond has been a delicate balance for Wells.

“I was told that I needed to pay off my student loans when I graduated and I had to do something practical. My passion … was something people didn’t ask me about.”

However, she found inspiration in other areas of community life.

“At church I was able to learn many different things and explore many different areas to express myself. Who I was became important in that space,” she said. “My art is for my people here and I wanted to give back to the city.”

She found a different Richmond than the one she left, describing the city as having more resources for aspiring artists and more receptive to new ideas. “Things have changed,” she said, adding that when she was growing up, “We didn’t have a youth center or anything that promoted the talents of young black women.”

Wells said Richmond has the potential to be an innovative artistic center in the Bay Area. “Because it’s not as developed artistically, there’s an opportunity for those who are innovative and forward thinking to come in and define it. The city is hungry for it,” she said.

She is planning more performances of the War at Home in Richmond and beyond.

“I want the quality of my work to speak for itself and what the city has to offer,” she said. “It’s important to work within the community to build art to a level of excellence.”

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