Nashville Children’s Theatre continues to live up to its billing. Hailed by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the top five young audience theaters in the country, it delivers yet another success with Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly.
The show, written by playwright Y York and directed by Scot Copeland, is based on the childhood experiences of collage artist Della Wells. At its core York’s theatrical piece explores the tension between the love of artistic expression and obstacles to achieving that expression – a concept NCT’s cast, crew and director effectively portray.
Tonia Bridge, the main character and nine-year-old version of Wells, stands at the center of this conflict, seeing a world full of wonderful colors and artistic creations. However, Tonia’s parents, Leon and Alma, have entirely different plans for Tonia: Alma wants her little girl to be a “subdued,” well-mannered young lady, and Leon believes that Tonia must understand the harsh realities of a dog-eat-dog world. Caught between her bright imagination and her desire to please her parents’ wishes, Tonia must find a way to overcome the obstacles to artistic fulfillment and happiness.
Set in 1964, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly occurs in the midst of the Civil Rights Era. To recreate the time period, scenic and lighting designer Scott Leathers crafts the skeleton of a comfortable, working-class home that serves as the setting for the entire play. With few major scenery changes, all of the transitions are smooth, using popular music of the 1960s to set the tone and reflect the era as actors enter and exit between scenes.
Beyond the physical set design itself, Leathers uses a projector to display a gray collage scene on the backdrop, which suddenly becomes colorful during scenes in which Tonia lets her imagination run free. The lighting further illustrates the contrast between Tonia’s vivacity and her parents’ rules. As Tonia plays with her dolls and runs around the stage pretending to fly, a yellow light shines on the stage, signaling freedom and excitement. Anytime Leon or Alma reprimands Tonia for her behavior the light is quickly extinguished, returning to a blue-gray haze.
Building upon Leathers’ scenic and lighting designs, costumer Patricia Taber distinguishes between colors and neutrals through the actors’ costumes. Leon, Alma, and Tonia wear 1960s fashions in bland colors, while Theo, Tonia’s friend, and Leon’s sister Aunt Franny wear bright greens, pinks and oranges. Every aspect of the design clearly reflects the central conflict and draws the audience into the world of Tonia’s family.
Against this backdrop the five-member cast gives a believable portrayal of a family struggling with personality differences and divergent hopes. Jessica Kuende, the actor portraying Tonia Bridge, brings energy and exuberance to her role. She leaps around the stage with abandon and plays make-believe with her dolls, Miss Merci and Miss Katie, giving insight into Tonia’s need to be creative. Yet, just as the color fades from the collage backdrop, Kuende quickly becomes passively quiet at Leon and Alma’s entrances, demonstrating her versatility. Reacting with a mixture of humor and seriousness, Kuende makes the audience empathize with and root for Tonia.
David Chattam as Leon Bridge depicts a man torn between a love of his family and the pain of having former hopes dashed. As a result, Chattam fluctuates between overprotective cynicism and a sense of lightheartedness in his interactions with Tonia. Opposite Chattam, Aleta Myles highlights the lasting effects of past hardships as she plays the weary and paranoid Alma Bridge. Though rather cryptic at first, Myles shows the audience a woman who has experienced childhood trauma and plays a more sympathetic character as the plot progresses.
Alicia Haymer and Bralyn Stokes round out the cast as Aunt Franny and Theo. Haymer provides the most colorful and dynamic contrast to Leon and Alma; her character is a kindred spirit to Kuende’s Tonia, delivering her lines with humor and depth of feeling. Likewise, Stokes’ nine-year-old Theo provides comic relief to the play’s more serious moments and shares childlike banter with Tonia.
Nashville Children’s Theatre’s latest production is well-suited to youngsters and adults; with multiple themes, the play can keep diverse audiences engaged while providing substantial food for thought. Y York blends comedy with drama to create a show that comments on the need to overcome obstacles to creativity as well as the joy of letting one’s imagination run free; NCT’s strong interpretation of Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly does not disappoint on either of those points.
Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly runs through Feb. 10 at Nashville Children’s Theatre (25 Middleton St.). There are public performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (but no show on Sunday, Jan. 27. Della Wells, whose life serves as inspiration for Y York’s play, will attend on Saturday, Feb. 2, and following the 2 p.m. show participate in an After-Words Q & A with the audience and discuss the play and her art, some of which will be displayed in NCT’s lobby. In addition to the play the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission will host a gallery show of Wells’ art until March 1 which is free and open to the public. Visitors to the Metro Arts Gallery (located on the fourth floor of the Metro Office Building at 800 2nd Ave S.; please bring a valid ID to check in with security) can view the exhibition Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A special artist reception with Wells will be held at Metro Arts Gallery on Friday, Feb. 1 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. that is also open to the public. Tickets (Adults $19; Youths to age 17 and seniors age 65 and up $12; Groups of ten or more $11 per person; 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24 preview performance $12 adults and seniors/$6 youths) for Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly can be purchased by phone at (615) 252-4675 or online at nashvillect.org. The 2 p.m. show today (Jan. 26) show will offer open captioning for patrons who are hard of hearing.
*Photo of Jessica Kuende by Colin Peterson courtesy Nashville Children’s Theatre.