Black Hair, Performance, and The Art of Storytelling Through Style

Issue Two: Nollywood Dreams
Renee Harrison
November 8, 2021
Renee Harrison

Renee Harrison is a NYC based actor, content creator and founder of Black Girls Do Theater. Jamaica born, and New Jersey raised, her artistry is built upon the foundation of civic engagement as a means of storytelling. A natural storyteller at heart, Renee is passionate about empowering Black stories through intentional, authentic, and creative mediums. Black Girls Do Theater reflects those beliefs. Founded in 2017, this platform is a curation of culture and resources for the Black woman-identifying theater artist.

An Interview with Nikiya Mathis

In an industry that centers aesthetics as a form of storytelling, for Black actors, theater can be a difficult path to walk without the right support. Having sat in chairs with makeup artists who were hell-bent on applying the wrong foundation color or stylists that looked at my hair with confusion when tasked with styling it, I can attest to this painstaking experience. For the last few years however, actors and artists alike have reignited the conversation about what it means to be a Black artist in this intimate space. And while the industry continues the race to diversify their aesthetic resources for actors of color, Nikiya Mathis is here to remind us that getting to the finish line is all about action.

An actor, designer, and creator, Nikiya Mathis stands in her own lane. She graduated NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with an MFA in acting and founded the ActTRESSES Design & Consulting studio. Nikiya closely understands the concerns of actors when it’s time to work and, after having her own hair mishandled in the golden seat, established a solution to those worries.

I had the opportunity to chat with Nikiya about her role as hair designer for Nollywood Dreams, a work that transcends time, continents, and consequently, style. Penned by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Saheem Ali, the play’s comedic look into Nigeria’s film industry is both hilarious and refreshing. I haven’t been able to stop watching Nollywood films since. 

Like two Jersey girls from neighboring cities would do, Nikiya and I dived into our conversation with an ease that can only be described as kismet. Much of that could be due to the fact that we grew up in areas less than three miles away from each other (hey Newark and East Orange, NJ!), which gifted us with an unspoken familiarity and mutual understanding of Black hair styles and the innovation of stylists with few resources. In fact, an up-close look at many trends we see today will reveal the influence of the Nollywood Y2k aesthetic. It’s flashy, glamorous, and dares you to look away.

Renee Harrison: What’s your day been like so far?

Nikiya Mathis: I came in earlier today for some wig prep. The film star in the production, Wale [Ade Otukoya], he wears a wig and –

Renee: Wait, what!? He’s wearing a wig? No way!

Nikiya: (laughs) Yes, his natural hair is much longer than his hair in the show.

I feel like this is a recent discussion and also a fight that I've been having in terms of Black actors not being forced to cut their hair for a European aesthetic. Of course, Nollywood Dreams is set in Nigeria, so we aren’t within that white gaze, but the truth is that after the show, we have to audition -- during the show, we have to audition. So what the hair looks like underneath this wig is equally important. The whole creative team wanted to be sensitive to his desire to not cut his hair because that's really a part of his look as an actor. Style is an individual journey.

Renee: Wow.

Nikiya: This is actually the first time I've done a short afro wig, really anything like this at all, on a male actor. I remember Dede saying to me, “I'm a little nervous.” And I was like “me too, so we'll see!” But, you know, it worked. Thank God! 

Renee: The challenge was met! I love the way that we’re starting this conversation off. It makes me think about equitable rooms and what it means for actors to have agency.

Nikiya: That's real. Even when we had the conversation, I was sensitive to the fact that he was a little tentative. So what can I do to ease him knowing that my real job is to provide support to actors and to service them, as opposed to just giving them a wig to wear? The beauty in that challenge was that I actually got to see what I could do. I got to push past my own boundaries. That was the dopest thing about it.

Renee: Bravo. Bravo. I think this is the perfect segue into your creative process for Nollywood Dreams. What does your hair designing look like for a show this culturally specific?

Nikiya: It starts with talking to Dede Ayite, the costume designer, about what her vision for the show is. Specifically, what she is thinking about in terms of who is wearing their own hair and who is wearing wigs. Then, I research the period. We have a show set in early Nollywood and then we have a play that is heightening that world. We had to create a marriage between the two and then figure out what the boundaries are within that marriage. There were a lot of conversations about refining the Nollywood aesthetic to fit today’s stage.

Renee: Nollywood has such a distinct styling direction.

Nikiya: Yes! Early films used a lot of beauty supply store wigs. There was a lot of DIY styling. Look at Fayola [Emana Rachelle], who wears a red wig in the show. We couldn’t make the wig look fried, dyed, and laid to the side because it wouldn’t be authentic. At the same time, we wanted the ladies to go out on stage looking and feeling their best. We’re bridging that gap.

Renee: Yes, the red wig is so on point! You know, in my very Caribbean household when I spent summers in Jamaica, we would watch Nollywood films. We had a stack of DVDs. I think one is called like Beyoncé versus Ciara…

Nikiya: (through laughter) Beyoncé, The President’s Daughter!

Renee: Yes! While I was watching the show, there was an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. It hit very close to home—the aesthetic of it all. Everything was so well curated like Dede’s [Nana Mensah] platform sandals. It's so beautiful.

Nikiya: There are specific elements that are key to the 90s that were important for me to channel. For example, Dede’s braided bob with the burned ends. We really got to have some fun. A scrunchie, a high ponytail, or like Fayola when she comes out in the last scene with the pin curls. The look was really en vogue back then. That Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé blonde. Fayola is the Halle Berry of Nollywood so she has to look fabulous!

Renee: You occupy the theater as a multi-hyphenate: actor, hair and wig designer, creator. How has your experience as an actor informed your process as a hair and wig designer?

Nikiya: It makes the entire process more collaborative. What is the actor comfortable with doing? With replicating for eight shows a week? I don't want you to get out there and feel self conscious, because you actually bear the heaviest burden. All the work that everybody's doing backstage, you, the actor, have to take all of that with you on stage. Life is constantly happening so whether you're sad, happy, mad, if you just had a loss in your family, you still have to go out there and show up. I do my best to ease that because I’ve been there. I want you to be your best.

Renee: I think that's the beauty and necessity of occupying the theater in multiple ways. There are so many moving parts and it's important to understand exactly what the other people on the team are doing. 

Nikiya: That's major because, when I am in this space as a wig designer, I can recognize myself in actors sometimes. They often don’t know the fight that I've already had, on their behalf, some that I’ve lost, trying to get this thing for them. 

Renee: It’s a larger conversation that's happening across the entertainment industry in film, television, and theater. It’s having artists who are able to work with ethnic hair. 

Nikiya: To me, natural hair care is a basic thing that should be provided for, particularly for Black women, actually Black actors in general. Because of budget, we often don’t have tools that should be basic give-ins.

Renee:  It’s a tool for empathy really.

Nikiya: Exactly, if you want to use my hair you should know how to care for it, right? But that’s not standard.

Renee: I think we've all been in those rooms where we think: this stylist is going to damage my hair if I don’t say anything. We can bring it back to the agency conversation too. How do you say that?

Nikiya: I know! How DO you say that? It’s a big question. 

Renee: What could make those conversations easier to have? 

Nikiya: I'm intentional about trying to get people in the space that look like us because it allows for a different level of comfortability. Prior to 2021, I never had a wig supervisor that was Black. So in the position that I’m in, what I aim to do is bring on wig supervisors that are Black and have styling experience. That doesn't mean that as a Black person, you're not making a mistake. It doesn't even mean that I'm not making a mistake, or that I don't fumble the ball sometimes. What I know though is that I'm trying, that I love you, I know you, and I want to do the best I can for you. 

Renee: As you were talking about bringing on Black hair designers, I thought about a previous conversation we’d had. You’d brought on Shereese Nichole for a Broadway project you signed onto earlier this year. What did that conversation look like between you two?

Nikiya: Coming out of the height of the pandemic, there has been a shortage of wig supervisors in the theater. This is not a space that's easy to get into; Cookie Jordan is the only other Black wig designer on Broadway right now. That’s crazy. 

So for that project, I reached out to three Black women stylists letting them know that I wanted to train a few wig supervisors. I saw it as, well, a door has been opened for me so I'm opening it up further and pulling people in. One of the stylists was from Jersey and she asked if she could bring her cousin and, as fate would have it, her cousin was Shereese. She really showed up and was just awesome in terms of being able to replicate the styling that I had set on the wigs, as elaborate as they were. I also knew that she wanted to get into the union, so as soon as I got the [Broadway] show, my thinking was “Shereese needs to be in the hair room.” This is my Broadway debut and maybe it could be hers too. People only get into these spaces when you give them a chance.

Renee: It’s very affirming to see you occupy this space the way you do. Especially knowing how purposeful you are about the work you take on. Is there a particular moment in Black beauty history that you found the most captivating?

Nikiya: Oh, there are so many moments! I am most captivated by the transition from the 80s into the 90s—here in the States, but also the styling on the continent of Africa. Hairstyling is so closely tied to our identity and styling on the continent, before the Middle Passage and after, and was a sign of identity and social status. I see a direct correlation between Southern urban styles and traditional African hairstyles in the sense that we’ve been doing this forever. It's the way that we, as Black women, have taken some agency over our own identity. So much of our creativity is in our hair and it can really be a work of art. 

Renee: Our moms, our aunties, our grandmas, they are all artists. There should be more room for young Black girls to be able to fully –

Nikiya: – express themselves!

Renee: Yes!

Nikiya: Sometimes they are so talented and so creative and have no idea because we don't affirm it, because American beauty standards do not allow us to see our own beauty.

Renee: When my best friends and I were learning how to do our hair, there was so much room for exploration. We were teaching ourselves how to braid, how to sew down tracks, use yarn for locs…

Nikiya: Yeah, we sort of just figured out how to do it on our own. Like, I don't necessarily know exactly what this is but I can look at it and say, “Oh, let me try that!”

Renee: Somehow, some way, the brain is almost able to dissect the style in order to see how it could work. What’s funny too is that yarn locs have been worn for centuries yet here we were “discovering” them again.

Nikiya: In researching for Nollywood Dreams, I was looking at all these hairstyles, like, wait a minute. So we’ve been doing flip ponytails! And a lot of the wispy look is from the 60s, and that's even coming back. All these things keep repeating themselves. 

Renee: What I love is that as they're repeating themselves, they keep getting better and better.

Nikiya: Oh Absolutely. Absolutely.

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