by Lyndon Jones
In 2008, Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq was home to more than 20, 000 military personnel. As the largest United States military base in Iraq at that time, the camp was created to give a small hometown American feel in what was considered the most hostile part of the occupied nation. Serving his second tour of duty there was aspiring actor/writer and Mississippi native, Dominique McClellan, who remembers recommendations from his superiors.
“Chain of command encouraged us to do things to take our mind off of being in the desert and warzone. That wasn’t too hard for me,” says the budding playwright, a self-proclaimed creative thinker, who was just a couple of years away from completing a double major in TV production and theatre at the University of Mississippi.
McClellan, now 34, recalls always being passionate about writing and “telling stories” from an early age. But not until seeped in the tension of a warzone and thousands of miles from home, did McClellan realize that his passion had the ability to impact lives.
“I knew what I was good at. I knew I wanted to make movies. But using my work to help people is what I discovered at that time. It helped me find my passion.”
McClellan immediately began to transform what was originally intended to be his first screenplay, into a stage play that would be performed by his fellow troops. Titled, The Wedding Party, McClellan held auditions with soldiers, oversaw rehearsals, and even secured a live band for backup for a heartfelt story which compiled several personal experiences of love and loss, along with a few stories inspired by fellow soldiers. The storyline is meant to be humorous and one to which everyone can relate, while providing an emotional release for participants and audience alike.
According to McClellan, the play was a huge success, drawing more than 600 military men and women, but most importantly it gave troops the opportunity to completely forget that they were in the midst of an unpredictable warzone. This was the purpose, he says.
“The support was so overwhelming,” says McClellan, adding that his parents sent countless supplies for set design. His mother even mailed a wedding cake, which took two weeks to arrive.
“When I got the box, I could smell the cake. It was still fresh,” he says. “At that moment, (the play) became real to me.”
McClellan has since gone on to write several more stage plays and screenplays, but has also revised The Wedding Party, choosing to produce the play in his hometown of Grenada, Mississippi where, it too, had tremendous reception.
The amended work reflected real life for those in his hometown, whom as he says, at that time, needed to be uplifted, it needed the play’s humor, the sub-drama that so many families deal with behind closed doors, humorous characters like a grandmother and grandfather, who will punch through with comedic lines.
“Nothing like that had ever been done (in his hometown),” he says. And admittedly skeptical in the beginning, the play went forward before a packed house of 500 people. “It went so well that I had to stay another three months because they wanted me to do it again”.
‘The Party’ Arrives in NOLA
McClellan has brought The Wedding Party to New Orleans. McClellan landed in New Orleans three years ago with nothing to his name but a dream of putting his work to stage and eventually the big screen. Having taken small roles in several local plays like Anthony Bean Community Theatre’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where he played the role of “Gooper,” as well as, many odd jobs in film and production, McClellan has finally found his footing and an “impressive” cast to bring his first production to life.
On May 23 and 24 in Landry Walker’s auditorium, the Jackson family story will take center stage with 12 local actors who will take audiences through the ups and downs of family life. The play deals with the serious consequences of diabetes, the difficulty of teenage pregnancy, and offers comic relief from characters audiences have found funny and familiar, McClellan says.
Local actress Jyna Tilton, who serves as stage manager and has been active in the local theatre scene for several years, says the over-arching theme of the play is love.
“The Jacksons are a good example of family. I think there’s a character that everyone will relate to.”
Originally drawn to New Orleans because of its thriving movie industry, McClellan admits pondering other locations such as Atlanta or Los Angeles, but declares the choice has been to stay close and do something for “my community.”
McClellan has not only added life to the play, but has revamped the musicality of the play with all local New Orleans musicians who will perform live. And says working so closely with all actors and musicians has led to an unexpected closeness. “We’re like a family,” he says. “It’s like a family atmosphere.”
McClellan and Tilton hope to bring similar results with their non-profit, New Orleans Renaissance Movement (NORM). NORM is set to provide at-risk youth in New Orleans with a holistic theatre experience by offering up-close sessions in costume and set design, acting and writing.
“We want to serve youth who are overlooked,” says Tilton adding that the ultimate goal is to “strengthen literacy skills through writing as well as the writing of the original production.”