Dede Ayite recently became a first-time Tony Award nominee, twice. The Ghanaian-born costume designer is nominated for her work on Slave game and A soldier’s game, two of 18 Tony-eligible productions in a season interrupted by the Broadway closure in March.
It’s a surreal time to celebrate the honors, given the state of the world and the theater industry (perhaps one of the reasons the broadcast ceremony hasn’t been scheduled yet). But it’s also a particularly poignant question for Ayite, who has joined with other artists to think deeply about how to create fairness in the industry, and whose work also demonstrates, in her quest for truth. , the scale and dynamism of black stories.
“I feel happy, of course,” Ayite told The Daily Beast of the appointments, on Zoom from her New York apartment. “I feel humble and gratified, but at the same time, it’s conflicting for me. I’m still trying to navigate and reconcile the idea that there is so much pain right now, and potentially more to come.
Broadway will remain closed until June 2021 at the earliest, when a year has passed since the eruption of the global protest against anti-black racism and the ensuing racial accounts that have spread across industries. , including the New York Theater. Ayite is wary when considering the role of theater in larger cultural conversations about black life.
“Showing that black people are human beings and that they are worthy however you think of them is important to me,” she says. At the same time, Ayite does not plan to offer such proof as part of her work or what motivates her as an artist. “I don’t do a show to prove to anyone that I matter enough,” she says. Even the idea of ’black girl magic’, in some ways, is problematic. I don’t have to be magical for me to count. I don’t have to be extraordinary according to your criteria. Of course, I am magic; I’m human. ”Hopefully people come to the theater because they’re already open to empathizing with experiences outside of their own, she suggests.
“When it comes to storytelling, what brings me the most joy is an attempt to find some kind of truth or to tap into aspects of society that we, as black people or as people [more generally], might not have considered or necessarily experienced, ”Ayite said. “I’m also trying to disrupt this idea that the black experience is a singular story.”
The two Broadway productions that Ayite helped bring to life this season were exemplary of its artistic tenants.
Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave game, now Tony’s most nominated play in history, sparked heated conversations about sex, power and the traumatic legacies of slavery, permeating the times in a way seldom achieved by a Broadway production.
The piece presents a major design challenge. Its first scene shows three interracial couples dressed in what appears to be pre-war costume, playing out sexual encounters in which one partner appears to be enslaved. It is only in the first act of the play that we find out that these are modern characters participating in an elaborate role-playing game.
“What was important as a costume designer was putting people in place in a way that they felt it could be real, but just enough little things were missing for them to know that something thing was wrong, ”Ayite says. “I couldn’t get ahead of the audience and take the experience away from them.” This meant subtle details, like the modern style of headband worn by Kaneisha (played by Tony’s contestant Joaquina Kalukango) or leather boots worn by her partner Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) that looked like period but were also modern.
An ornate gown worn by Alana (nominated for Tony Annie McNamara) in the opening scene is an example of how Ayite sought to weave the play’s racial and sexual power dynamics directly into the clothes on stage.
The colorful embellishment of the fabric wouldn’t have been quite appropriate for the period, Ayite said, but it was meant to demonstrate how much (and whose) work went into its construction. “I hope to give the public a small window on the European standards of beauty which [Alana] could take on, ”Ayite said,“ while recognizing that there is a cost to this fabric, ”namely the slave labor that would have turned raw cotton into a pretty fabric.
The dress came off to reveal shiny black dominatrix outfit, a more obvious period departure that reflects another aspect of the power play between Alana and her black partner, Phillip (played by Sullivan Jones). Alana has the privilege of being white, Ayite says. “But then, as a woman, she takes ownership of her sexuality and finds a way to talk about herself. The scene finds Alana dominating her partner in bed (allegedly to remedy her racial trauma).
“I’m not here to judge the character,” Ayite said. “I’m here to identify what this character is most true to himself and then to try to emulate him through the costumes without revealing too much.”
A soldier’s gameThe 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning Charles Fuller’s drama about black American soldiers awaiting deployment during World War II presented a different kind of challenge.
The all-male cast, including stars Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier, wore military uniforms everywhere. Ayite looked at historical images to accurately represent not only the clothes themselves, but also how each character would have worn them and styled their hair, depending on their status and personality.
“For me, every character matters and has some sort of story whether it’s featured or not,” Ayite said. “I hope to illustrate this in my costumes by adding more detail.” In this case, it led to conversations with the cast about religion and the date of birth they wanted imprinted on their characters’ nameplates, for example.
“My job is to find my way and try to figure out where [actor] comes from, and how I can combine that with what our intention is for the show so that they feel comfortable because ultimately they have to be on stage, ”says Ayite. Collaboration with the directors and the entire design team is also essential from the start, said Ayite. “I don’t work in a singular way.”
Ayite studied design at the Yale School of Drama, after moving from Ghana for high school in 2001. She majored in undergraduate behavioral neuroscience at Lehigh University, and brings her expertise and fascination to psychology at work. “I’m interested in who we are and what motivates us as human beings,” Ayite said. This curiosity serves both his character explorations and his working relationships within the industry.
With live theater largely on hiatus, Ayite has teamed up with other designers to form a group called Design Action, which sprang up as a result of this summer’s protests to fight racism in the community. and make the process easier for new color designers.
“Right now our main goal is to try to understand the problems [rising and early-career designers] are facing, what traumas they might experience, and how we can alleviate some of it and create space for them, ”Ayite said. “How can we create fairness for all of us? There are so many levels to it, but I think the first step is harm reduction. “
Ayite’s perspective on race and privilege was shaped by her experience growing up in Ghana before moving to the United States as a teenager. “Due to my background and upbringing, when I first came here I don’t think I fully understood what was going on,” she says of white people ‘s perception of her as a black woman. . “It happened a lot when I first moved, people would say, ‘Oh, you do so well in school’ or ‘You talk so well’. It’s like, ‘Okay, well, why not?’ “
Having built a career in American theater, she experienced the tightrope walker that many artists of color, and black women in particular, call typical of the industry.
“There were times when I walked into the room and recognized that I’m the only black person here,” Ayite said. “So I have to make sure I’m on point. And I’m still trying not to be the “ angry black woman, ” but also being tough on my needs. How do I get my voice out so that it doesn’t sound angry or arrogant? It’s something that a lot of people don’t have to navigate. “
Paving the way for other designers, hoping they will face less of the same challenges, is especially important to Ayite. “Being grateful to those who have sacrificed and to whom it has cost something to open the doors for me to be where I am today, I am absolutely aware that I must do the same for those who come after. me, ”she said. .
It is a principle anchored in her from a young age and embodied by the Ghanaian symbol Adinkra. Sankofa, which means “to remember the past and move on”. Her father gave her a pendant with the symbol when she was 16. “Growing up has always been with me.”
The industry’s extended hiatus has given time and space for artists like Ayite, and groups like Design Action and Broadway Advocacy Coalition, to question individual responsibility and how to work for greater equity, in particular. for artists confronted with anti-black racism.
“How can I capitalize on the relationships I have to create space, or to identify actions we can take to create access and opportunities for others?” Said Ayite. “Who is the theater for? If it’s for all of us, how does what we do behind the scenes or on stage reflect the culture or community in which we exist?
That’s a question the entire industry needs to consider before the curtains come up for the next Tony-eligible season.
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