Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly
Inspired by the life and art of Della Wells

Science Milwaukee
photo credit: Jessica Kaminski for First Stage

Reaching for Dreams at First Stage's Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly

The magical, whimsical world of a child's imagination comes to life in Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly...This is one of the “quieter” plays produced by First Stage (it does not feature a horde of kids singing and dancing). The five-member cast consists of three adults and two children. It tells the poignant story of Milwaukee's Della Wells, a nationally recognized folk artist, represented in the play by a character called Tonia Bridge. An only child, Tonia fills her days playing with her two dolls. One of them, Miss Katie, is a white doll with long, blond hair (“like the girls in the TV ads for shampoo,” Tonia says). The other, given to her as a birthday gift from her aunt, is a Caribbean doll named Miss Merci. The black-skinned doll has a lilt in her “voice” and in her step, aided by a flowing, colorful skirt that “billows.” The “conversations” between the two dolls add depth to Tonia's interior world, allowing the audience to peek inside a 9-year-old girl's brain. The play's three adults are Tonia's mother and father and an aunt who lives nearby. The fifth character is Theo, a young boy in Tonia's class. Playwright Y York recreates a series of family interactions that demonstrate the love, care and concern felt within Tonia's home. The set depicts the family's living room and dining room, as well as a staircase leading to bedrooms above. Tonia turns to art as an escape from some difficulties she faces in her life. ...The tender, beautifully written play takes audiences into the lives of an African-American family in the 1960s. It touches briefly on some of the harsher realities faced by blacks during that time; regardless of these challenges, Tonia keeps reaching for her dreams."-- Anne Siegel, Shepard Express/Express

Promotional video from First Stage Children's Theatre.

Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly Soars at First Stage

"Here's how Milwaukee artist Della Wells explains the title..."Children are told they can't do anything or they won't make it," but "You have to spread your wings yourself and believe you can do it." Such faith in one's dream is what First Stage Children's Theatreis all about, as it is proving again through its world-premiere production of Y York's Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly, a five-actor play inspired by Wells' life and art. ...This show belongs to the kids and the two comprising the Miss Katie cast (appearing in alternating performances with the Miss Merci cast) are more than all right. Ashley Nord gives a persuasive protrait of the artist as a yong girl. All alone on the Todd Wehr stage, she and her dolls come to life. Collaborating with the blonde-haired Miss Katie, Nord's Tonia an energetic and telling re-enactment of Rapunzel. Newly liberated, Tonia collaborates with the exotically Carribean Miss Merci in a beautifllly imagined and clearly explained creation of a collage, Wells' best-known art form. Under Mark Lutwak's direction. Nord never gets precious and doesn't overplay, making her gradual artistic awakening even more moving. As Tonia's friend Theo. Matthew Wade is a lively comic foil. [His] expressive eyes are intially wary as well as mischievous -- before eventually filling with wonder as he, too, is swept up in Tonia's vision, of a world radically transformed by the vivid colors of everyday life." -- Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

fly nashville
Nashville Children's Theatre

Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly soar(s) at Children's Theatre

It’s no surprise that color and light figure prominently in Y York’s charming play, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly.” After all, the piece was inspired by the life and work of acclaimed collage artist Della Wells...Set in 1964, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” centers on Tonia Bridge, a 9-year-old African-American girl with a big imagination. Tonia’s parents worry about their young daughter and her burgeoning creative spirit. Still burdened by their own childhood traumas and disappointments, they urge her to blend in and be more “subdued.” But Tonia longs to spread her wings and fly — even if only in her dreams...With great humor and sensitivity, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” explores the value of creativity and the need to follow our dreams. But it also touches on the challenges we meet along the way, and the importance of family and friendship as we realize those dreams. -- Amy Stumpfl, The Tennessean

DTMICF Charlotte
photo credit: Dona Bise for Children's Theatre of Charlotte

Workshopped at the 2010 Kennedy Center New Visions/New Voices Festival.
Commissioned by First Stage Children's Theatre; premiere, October 28, 2011.

The beautifully crafted play performed in the Todd Wehr Theater returns the audience to 1964, at the crest of the civil rights movement, and to the comfortable home of nine-year old Tonia Bridge. Tonia’s life was “inspired” by Milwaukee collage artist Della Wells, an African American child who grew up with a family that had “good days and bad days, good moods and bad moods.” She never knew what she would be facing from hour to hour. ... York delivers these uncomfortable subjects in cicumstances or dialogue displaying empathy, honesty, humor, imagination and intelligence using only five characters that convey depth and sincerity. A chicken named Lassie finds a place here, too. ... York’s script under Mark Lutwak’s direction becomes an exceptional, multi-layered performance collage, similar to Della Wells’ art. She adeptly pieces together in the play situations revealing the power of art, education, family, friendship, race, and survival. The dramatic personal conflict Tonia experiences transforms her life and the audience, just as it did for Wells, which reaches far beyond age, gender or skin color. York creates a marvelous scenario for overcoming adversity while also discovering one’s unique soul. The production’s ending 'billows' with surprising color and joy ... this sensitive new work presents the very best in children’s theater. -- Peggy Sue Dunigan, PostScript Performing Arts

photo credit Dona Bise for Children's Theatre of Charlotte

2013 AATE Distingushed Play Award

2 female adults
1 male adult
1 female child
1 male child
the chararacters are African American
full length
unit set


photo credit Dona Bise for Children's Theatre of Charlotte

download excerpt


DTMICF cover

Published by Dramatic Publishing.

Children's Theatre of Charlotte


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