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Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011

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

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The magical, whimsical world of a child's imagination comes to life in Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly. The world premiere of this true-life story opened Friday at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center. The First Stage Children's Theater production continues through Nov. 13.

This story is one of the “quieter” plays produced by First Stage (meaning 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. Tiffany Yvonne Cox and Chauncy Thomas shine in their roles as the parents, as does Chinai J. Hardy, as the aunt. Child actors rotate their roles, and LaNae Ramey (Tonia) and Dashaun McCray (Theo) performed on Saturday as part of the “Miss Merci” cast. Theo, a boisterous lad, spends much of his first scene bouncing on a couch that serves as a trampoline. He gets many of the play's funniest lines. But the play belongs to Tonia, as this is her story of growing up and channeling her artistic talents.

First Stage recommends Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly for children ages 8 and up, as younger children may get restless during some of the talkier scenes. 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.
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