Talking to Milwaukee folk artist Della Wells is a lot like chatting with an old friend, maybe even a family member. There’s honesty, no pretense and always time for sisterly advice or an encouraging word.
“My mother suffered from schizophrenia,” she said in the opening minute of a recent interview with Qcitymetro. “And she went about 14 years untreated.”
Wells also shared that she grew up in Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville community, as one of eight children. But that was in the 1950s and ’60s, before integration, before the freeway came plowing through.
On Friday, a production opens at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte that is loosely based on Wells’ early years in Bronzeville, a former African-American enclave. “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” tells the story of Antonia Bridge, a little girl whose artistic dreams far outstrip the conformist life her parents would have her imagine in 1960s America.
Wells, who’s perhaps best known for her collage art, says she wants the audience to come away inspired.
“I want people in difficult situations, particularly children, to realize that you can overcome the situation, that you can survive it, that you can have a fruitful life,” she said. (As she told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “Children are told they can’t do anything, or they won’t make it. You have to spread your wings yourself and believe you can do it.”)
Wells said she also hopes the play will help remove some of the stigma surrounding mental illness.
“That’s something we don’t talk about in the African-American community,” she said. “We don’t talk about it period in America, but we really don’t talk about it in the African-American community. I think we need to talk about it more.”
Although born and raised in Milwaukee, Wells traces her maternal roots to North Carolina, a state she visited in earnest for the first time last year (an airport layover doesn’t count) and met relatives in Greensboro she had never seen before.
The play was written by Y. York. Last year, it earned her a Distinguished Play Award from the American Alliance for Theatre & Education.
Wells said the play came about after a university professor was touring one of her art exhibitions, saw the narrative thread in her work and thought it should be made into a stage play. The play made its debut in 2011 at First Stage, a Milwaukee children’s theater, following a reading at the 2010 Kennedy Center New Visions/New Voices Festival.
Wells said storytelling runs though all of her creative endeavors: collages, paintings, drawings, even the pillow dolls she sews and sells.
“I like stories, and I grew up with a lot of books,” she said, adding that she’s a huge fan of Dr. Seuss and the cartoon series “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
“I like little weird stories,” she said. “I’m always writing in my head. When I create my work, I actually think of stories.”
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