Shelby Marie Edwards is an actor, poet, solo performer, and teaching artist based in Chicago, IL. She is a graduate of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's professional leadership program and a former member of the 2018 Chicago slam poetry team, Lethal Poetry. Shelby has presented two original solo shows including Holly's Ivy at the 2018 Fillet of Solo Theatre Festival (Lifeline Theatre, Chicago) and Lost Home, Win Home at the New York, New Works Theatre Festival (Acorn Theatre, NYC). She is a proud graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA) and she anticipates graduating with her Masters from the University of Chicago in June 2019. Instagram: @hollysivy.
On August 12, 2017, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia became a national headline after a Neo-Nazi rally resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. While specific events of that day have been well documented, the residents of the city itself were largely removed from the national narrative. In “Lost Home, Win Home,” artist and Charlottesville native Shelby Edwards tells her story of the events leading up to that day and the effect it had on her hometown through a one-woman show. Emily Kelly, Managing Editor of Feels Blind Literary, spoke with Edwards and the show’s director, Earliana McLaurin, to discuss the show before it debuted in New York at the New York New Works Theater Festival.
I begin the interview by noting that the play seems autobiographical from the description I was sent. Is Edwards performing the entire piece as herself or is she playing multiple characters on stage? “I’m playing multiple characters. I start the play with a scene where my dad and I are playing chess,” she says. “I wanted to talk about the individual in the story. For me this story starts with the 2016 election, and how the rally happened around me, the day it happened, the days after.” She goes on to explain how many things were going on both in the city and her personal life during the months leading up to the rally. “My Mom passed away after Donald Trump was elected. I began dating someone and we had different opinions on politics and how to create change.” Edwards’ mother was an active member of the Charlottesville community, serving on city council and eventually becoming vice mayor of the city.
“Third person perspective comes into play at certain points,” says McLaurin. “It’s originally a documentary play, but Shelby connected to the material given the specifics of characters and it became about her life while these events were happening. At first an audience member might ask, ‘What does Shelby’s mother’s death have to do with these events?,’ but her family had stakes in the politics that were happening that had to do with these events.” Edwards elaborates, “For the arch of the show I talk about benchmarks. My mom was vice mayor of the city and then the next vice mayor, he’s a younger guy who wants to do his own thing. Part of his platform was that he wanted to remove the monuments.” Edwards explains that the attention this drew to the new vice mayor caused people in opposition to the proposal to dig through his social media, and when an alt-right blogger surfaced several inflammatory tweets involving race, gender, and sexuality, his role in politics was scrutinized. Although tensions between the vice mayor and the blogger were covered in local news outlets, the conversation about Charlottesville and its monuments did not come into the national spotlight until the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017, a rally that was organized by the same white supremacist resident who was at odds with the city’s vice mayor.
As I talk more with Edwards, I realize how a story about true events can take more shape when speaking with someone who witnessed them unfold. I ask her where she was when the rally occurred. “I was there [in the city] when the rally happened,” she says. “I was at home with my sisters and watching the rally on Facebook Live. The rally was coming closer to the house so I called my dad and took my sisters to my Godparents’ house.” Edwards goes on to say that the person she was dating at the time- someone she calls her love interest in the play- was in the streets protesting the rally on the block where the car that killed Heather Heyer plowed through crowds of people.
McLaurin says the play is peeling back the layers of the events that led up to the rally so a conversation can happen. “I work at a high school and I actually used a photo of the protests in my class to show that perception is detailed through reality,” she says. “What is really going on [in that photo]-Shelby gets into in the show. You don’t always know what’s going on from the news. There was a buildup. Shelby highlights it and brings it to the top. She gives that particular incident a tie to the details the media ignored or didn’t know about. I wanted to show them if you post something publicly you have to stand behind it. Like a young man there who was shocked he got backlash for being front and center at a hate rally. But I explained to my students you have a right to your opinions absolutely, but you can’t fight perception. My students in Chicago only know Charlottesville from that photo. Perception is sometimes reality. I told them, 'own your truth and stand by it, whether it’s digitally or in real life.'”
The play goes into the city’s history as well. McLaurin points out during the interview that in one scene Edwards discusses Charlottesville’s past gentrification. “I think a big part of the story is telling the truth and the whole truth,” Edwards explains. “In the show, me and my love interest go on a date to the African American Heritage Center. I tell him about how in the 60s there was a prominent black neighborhood in Charlottesville and the city council at the time decided to remove the tenants. The gentrification was called urban renewal. The city council divided the neighborhood into six sites and I attribute that to the racial tension being poisonous. The city wanted a beautiful neighborhood, but the Black identity was completely lost. The point of the story is also about how, when you find home, what are the parts that you love and what are the parts that suck and can you co-exist in both?” And how did Edwards come up with the show’s name? She explains how the title came to her once the story was fully written. “For a long time it was ‘Charlottesville meets the Chi’, playing on alliteration. But then when I was finished, I wanted to tie it together more. I liked the idea of lost home. I thought I lost home when my mother died, but really I lost home last summer when this happened.”
The technical elements of the show are a collaboration between the writer/actor and her director. McLaurin details how the pair has been rehearsing. “From a directorial standpoint, I wanted the characters to stand out. I told Shelby because she’s switching characters so quickly they need to be bold, polished and three dimensional. And she’s in conversation with multiple people in the scenes.” I ask Edwards if it was easier to embody the characters she’s written or if the element of reality complicates her process on stage. “It’s difficult to memorize, but jumping into the characters hasn’t been too hard because I’m filtering this universe though my own mind,” she says. “I do play the white supremacist who planned the march, but I took that dialogue from a speech, so that was just words.” She also tells me about how they chose her costume. “For my costume I’m wearing all white which is a word play on ‘alt-right.’ Earl mentioned if I’m wearing white could I wear a hood?” McLaurin explains, “Ever since Trayvon Martin was targeted for, among other things, wearing a hoodie, it's become a symbol of injustice. In the show, we blur that symbolism alongside the white hood associated with the KKK by putting Shelby in a white hoodie. The white hood has long stood as a symbol of hatred, however, we bring the injustice of that hatred to light by making that hood a hoodie.”
Where is home for Edwards today? “Home for me. The physical location of home is Charlottesville and that’s where my twin is and that’s where my dad is,” she says. “But if they move, my definition of home would change. But for now, that’s where my family is. That and the theater somewhere.” When asked if she’ll ever perform the show in her hometown, Edwards seems certain of how it would go over. “I don’t think I could ever do this show in Charlottesville because it would be too soon,” she says. “There would be a headline ‘Former vice mayor’s daughter makes art out of our pain.’” McLaurin, however, disagrees. “I think it has to be done there. Live your truth. I don’t tell stories to keep them hidden.” She pauses briefly, then adds, “But at the same time I’m a professional storyteller and you don’t tell a story until it’s ready to be told. And like Shelby said, they have more work to do before they’re ready to hear the story.”
At the time of the interview going to press Edwards and McLaurin were collaborating again. This time Edwards was directing McLaurin in “The Malt Liquor Diaries” as part of the 2019 Fillet of Solo Festival. The first show opens on January 19th and closes on January 26th-- this will be Edwards’ Chicago directorial debut. In February, she’ll be acting in the 2019 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, in a show called “Lucky: A Musical”. In June of this year, she will graduate from the University of Chicago with a Master of Arts with a concentration in Theatre and Performance Studies. As to what Edwards will be doing post-graduation, she says, “Directly following graduation, I'm going home to do some community outreach in Charlottesville. Perhaps I am most excited about this year because I am not really sure where 2019 is going to take me, but I am certainly ready for the journey there.”