The title of the play that opened Friday at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte is “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly.” But what Antonia Bridge’s parents tell her, really, is that she shouldn’t.
Her gruff father (Bobby Tyson), a mail carrier who never went to college and now sees life as one endless plod, warns her that excelling in art or science makes you a target for envy and cruelty. Better to keep your eyes lowered, your hands down, your voice to a murmur.
Her mentally troubled mother (Darlene Parker), who has fantasies of neighbors spying on her for the FBI, cautions young Tonia for another reason: To court attention is to encourage someone to snatch you away from the safety of your home and mother’s love.
Yet Tonia (Janalyn Moonie Walton) bounces along, telling herself stories when the ones she hears from her parents don’t satisfy her. Y. York based this hourlong drama on Wisconsin native Della Wells, who used art to cope with unhappiness, and the episodic play suggests the fragments Wells has incorporated in her folk art.
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We see episodes of the girl’s life, all in her living room, without getting a defined narrative line. In fact, the one sensible and clear-headed person in the show, an aunt who lives nearby (Veda Covington), seems more out of place than anyone else.
Tonia, who has just turned 9 in 1964, has already begun to fend for herself. She seems more grown-up than classmate Theo (Mason “Quill” Parker), alternating between childlike outbursts of make-believe and flashes of insight about her future. (Wells was 13 in 1964.)
York chose that year to hint at changes about to sweep through the black community: That was the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, and Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ugly conditions that shaped her parents’ views weren’t going to become beautiful overnight, but the world in which Tonia will grow up offers opportunities they lacked. (In retrospect, her mother’s paranoia has a basis in reality. We now know FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spied constantly on the black community and had agents blackmail King over an extramarital affair.)
Director Sidney Horton, who was probably close to Tonia’s age at the time, directs sympathetically. Mooney does a remarkable job of portraying naivete and sensitivity while showing flashes of the adult-to-be; Parker almost matches her in depicting a boy with a crush on a higher-achieving girl. The adult characters aren’t so thoroughly drawn, though the actors convey the right caring, unhelpful attitudes.
The play ends almost in midair, with no big epiphany. The climax comes when Tonia creates a collage from paint, cloth, paper, a broken coat hanger, chicken feathers and bones, and the metaphor is clear: From the ordinary materials of her life – even its detritus – she will make something beautiful. What happier ending could you want?