All-Black cast soars in ‘Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly,’ directed by VCU theatre students

“Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly,” co-directed by VCU theater students Calvin Graves and Rickaya Sykes, premiered on Nov. 5 at the Shafer Street Playhouse. It was put on by the VCU Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre and follows the story of nine-year-old Tonia Bridge. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Natalie Barr, Contributing Writer

Nine-year-old Tonia Bridge’s creative and imaginative mind was often silenced by her parents’ fears of the world. Continuously, Tonia struggled to please her parents while longing to express her desires and dreams. Tonia’s story was depicted in the VCU student-produced play “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly,” which followed the narrative of a Black family grappling with the socialization of a young, Black girl into the world during the 1960s. 

The VCU Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre (SALT) at the Shafer Street Playhouse premiered a three-day performance of “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” on Nov. 5 and Nov. 6 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 7 at 2 p.m. 

Co-directors Calvin Graves Jr. and Rickaya Sykes, who are both senior theatre performance majors, sought to take on important conversations surrounding race, gender and how Black children are taught to take up space in the world, and strived to portray them in a lighthearted, high-energy way, Graves said.

“I knew of this show and really liked the funness of this show. I thought coming right out of this pandemic to do something fun,” Graves said, of when Sykes approached him to co-direct. “Rickaya [Sykes] thought people would want to see something that was more lighthearted and fun rather than something sad.”

Sykes and Graves have known each other since entering the VCU theatre program as freshmen in 2018, according to Graves. He said the two worked, studied and even performed together in an all-Black sketch comedy group, Damn Skippy, co-founded by Graves and another theatre major, Kellie Bolden, in fall 2019. 

Sykes said she decided to approach Graves with the idea to co-direct their first play, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly,” together.

“We knew we wanted to create art. We knew we wanted to create some magic and make the stage shake a little,” Sykes said. “I knew Calvin [Graves] would be the perfect person to direct a show with.”

After dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year and a half, Sykes and Graves said they wanted to produce a high-spirited and fun play with the important message of staying true to oneself. 

Sykes and Graves chose “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly,” a play written by Y. York and inspired by the imaginative childhood of Della Wells, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin artist, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Sykes said she wanted to put on this play to give back by supporting VCU, the Richmond community and the Black actors within the VCU theatre program.

During each rehearsal, Sykes reminded the actors of the importance of the play. She said she wanted them to feel comfortable on stage, and similar to the message of the play, Sykes wanted each actor to believe in themselves and appreciate their talent.  

“Seeing the actors’ enthusiasm and their drive on that stage motivates me to continue doing what I love, because I see the talent that they have,” Sykes said.

Sykes said preparation for the play began in the summer. She said obtaining approval for a VCU SALT performance started with an application process detailing the play and reasons for showcasing it. 

The theatre performance major said after an interview with the SALT board and an application review, the co-directors were given the green light. She said auditions started at the beginning of the fall semester, leaving three short weeks for rehearsal time.

Sykes said she was concerned the actors would be hesitant to audition because of the quick turnaround time from auditions to rehearsals to the actual performance.

A lot of days I would get nervous that it wasn’t going to work out,” Sykes said. “The cast came and they brought a lot of energy, they applied notes quickly. That was the beauty of all of this.”

Graves said he and Sykes knew they wanted an all-Black cast for the performance. The co-directors put out flyers for an open audition call, and actors submitted headshots and a self-taped monologue. Graves and Sykes separately reviewed submissions, compared notes and then finalized the five-actor cast list.

“It’s very rare that we have an all-Black production here, and I want students to know that we see them,” Sykes said. “I want the students to know that we see you, we appreciate you, we love you, you are enough, this is your space. We need you to take up space.”

Ellie Strickland, a sophomore theatre performance student, played the lead role of Tonia Bridge. Strickland said she was thrilled to be the lead in her first SALT performance, and that she felt she overcame the challenges of not performing in over a year because of COVID-19. 

“The rehearsal process and memorizing lines, I’m not going to lie, was a little bit of a struggle,” Strickland said about taking a hiatus from performing due to COVID-19. “It’s been so long since like live theater, so I was a bit rusty.” 

Stickland said portraying a character that always kept her spirits high, even when others tried to limit her, was exciting. She hoped that the audience would see the growth in Tonia’s character and could relate to her.

“I’ve really loved being able to tap into the imagination that I’ve always had and incorporating it into this character because she’s so much fun and never has a crushed spirit,” Strickland said.

Brandon McLendon, a sophomore theatre performance student, was cast as Tonia’s best friend, Theo. He said all the scenes he had with Strickland, especially when Theo and Tonia would “play pretend,” and being able to portray a 9-year-old brought McLendon joy on the stage.

“I had to really try to remember myself as a kid to really put myself into this character,” McLendon said.

Dejah Weatherly, a sophomore forensic science student, heard about the play from her roommate, and a prior SALT cast member. Weatherly said she had never heard of the play before, and attended the event to find out more.

“I really liked it,” Weatherly said. “I was a little confused in the beginning, I’m not gonna lie. But I really liked it.”

Sykes and Graves said they hoped every audience member could relate to the cast and take away the message from the play –– to be true to yourself and your desires.

“I hope people, no matter who they are, don’t ever limit themselves,” Graves said. “You are enough. Trust yourself.”

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