Costume design is a monumental task, clothes often make the character and illuminate what other elements can’t. The talented Tony-nominated designer Dede Ayite, known for her mixing of African and Western fashion, is taking on such a task with Chicken and Biscuits, written by Douglas Lyons, which opened on Broadway October 10th, 2021.
Ayite was nominated for two Tony Awards during the 2019 - 2020 season for her work on Slave Play and A Soldier’s Play. Born in Ghana, Ayite attended the Yale School of Drama for Theatre Design where she graduated in 2011. She has gone on to work at institutions across the country, as well as doing prominent work on Broadway and Off-Broadway.
This past summer, she designed the vibrant costumes for The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which featured modern clothing and accessories like a chic silver Telfar bag (the vegan handbag by Black designer Telfar Clemens which became the “It” fashion accessory in 2020).
The designer’s pairing of cultural styles was apparent in Merry Wives, and in her designs for Steppenwolf’s production of Marie Antoinette in 2015, in which she added a dash of contemporary glamour to 18th-century fashion. Her sketches imagined the Queen of France dressed in sharp cat-eye sunglasses, a jewel-encrusted top, and a towering blonde wig fitting of Queen Bey herself.
Ayite has also made striking looks with little clothing. A scene in Slave Play has the character of Gary, a gay Black man, stripped down to only his underwear and shoes. In the Broadway production, he wore slick, jet black, boots you would find in a ‘90s leather bar, accentuated by white briefs hugging his hips. It was a striking, queer, and powerful image. In a show filled with shocking moments, it was these two simple articles of clothing that were a revelation of bold sexuality and confidence. The pieces broke through the vulnerability of Gary’s partial nudity and presented a character stepping into his own power.
Having such a rich body of work under her belt, I was curious about how Ayite thought about style, her work in relation to her personal life, and what drew her to this production of Chicken and Biscuits.
Jacob Santos: Like you, I love clothes. I love their importance in the creation of self. I don’t know if it has to do with being queer, or the fact that I grew up admiring pop stars, but I think it’s important for people to have an opportunity to create themselves. We are these blank pages that can be dressed however we want. I’m sure this is a process you go through when you work on dressing a character. How will the clothes inform their personality? I’m interested to hear if your work as a designer has ever influenced your personal life and the way you create yourself?
Dede Ayite: I have to assume that is the case. I’m an artist first, and whatever I’m taking in, reacting to, and putting out is in conversation with me as a human being. My eyes might be opened up in search of a color or costume for a character. I might incorporate that into my life. I might reinvestigate for myself;you know what? This silhouette might actually work for my body. This color, if I tweak it this way, or highlight this trim, and style the way I dress my clothes, that might be a wonderful experience.
I definitely do think there is a conversation there between myself and the work I do. There has to be. The stories that I do choose to tell are important. They move me and it’s because I’m in search of something.
I love how wearable Dede’s design was here for Merry Wives. The African prints of the character’s skirt and shirt were statement pieces, which were highlighted by the simplicity of the white top and black pants. The Telfar bag let me know this version of Shakespeare was on the pulse of modern taste. – Photo from Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.
Santos: To me, costume designers are the ones who can bring style to regular everyday people in a way that’s accessible. I’m not on the list for Paris fashion week. I’m not in the audience at the top runways.
Ayite: You never know!
Santos: That’s true; maybe one day! However, I can go see a movie, watch a TV show, or get a ticket to a play. It is from that design work I can draw inspiration for my own wardrobe. I love clothes that are sleek, classic, have a dash of flamboyance, and silhouettes that are immediately recognizable. For example, I wore an outfit to school that was made up of this yellow jacket that looked like Luke Skywalker’s from the medal scene in A New Hope, and a boat hat like the Leading Player’s in Pippin. I was feeling like the main character!
Santos: Do you ever think about how your designs live beyond the stage? Has anyone ever come up to you and said, “oh my God, I saw that piece you designed and I want to wear it!”
Ayite: I’ve had people say, oh my God, I would love to wear that costume! Having recently designed Merry Wives for Shakespeare in the Park, I had a lot of folks come up to me and ask where did you get that? I’ve had people send me DMs on Instagram, which was a first, asking for links to where I purchased or sourced some of the clothes. I’m happy to share because if they can enhance their wardrobe, then that’s totally fine.
Santos: We live in a digital age where posting our outfits to social media is common practice. With that comes positive or negative comments about the fabrics, patterns, or accessories we wear. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what good fashion is. How would you define style? Does everyone have it, or does it have to be learned?
Ayite: I think it depends on how you define style. The tricky thing about style is when you talk about decolonizing fashion or costumes it's also decolonizing what style is. Depending on where you’re from, style to you might mean something else. I leave that up to the individual to decide what feels right to them, and whether they want to push against what the culture feels is the way to dress. Style is an individual journey.
Great Pop media is referential, while pushing the art form forward. This design for Marie Antoinette was a great Pop outfit. It retained the classic, and regal, silhouette of French nobility. However, its glittering top, cat eye sunglasses, and “BOSS” boldly written in jewels modernized the look in a way that would not be out of place on a MTV Video Music Award stage. – Photo: Illustration: Dede Ayite/Steppenwolf.
Santos: For sure! Talking about who does or does not have style feels like the fashion police, and I don’t want to be that.
Ayite: When it comes to critiquing fashion or costume, I do think an individual can react to a piece and agree if it feels right to them because of the way the patterns and the silhouette come together, and they can jive with them. Or, you can say that’s just not for me, but that’s alright! That’s just one opinion.
Santos: I appreciate when artists are transparent about their work and their craft. Sometimes I try to do research on other designers and I can’t really find any information about them. Has being open and transparent about your craft been a conscious choice? What does it mean for you to be so public with your work?
Ayite: I don’t think it’s been intentional to be honest! I’m a private person, but I’ve been fortunate that people have wanted to interview me and talk to me about my work. For that I am grateful.
I also recognize that visibility is important. For someone like me to break through, to be creating, to be working on Broadway and working Off-Broadway is important. I love that I do have access or a platform, that I can share my journey and say, “Hey, you might not have started in theatre, or your family might not understand what you’re doing, but pursue that dream of yours.”
Santos: It seems like combating racism is an unavoidable topic when you are Black or Brown working in the theatre industry. I often wonder why our White counterparts don’t get asked the race and racism question in all of their interviews. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Ayite: A few months ago I was walking down the street, and I said to myself, “man, the labor.” You know, I love being Black. I love being African. I love my culture. It’s important to recognize the labor that comes with just existing as a Black person. Because I am a Black woman, people are going to ask me those questions and put the labor on me to speak up.
Hopefully, I can create a tiny shift so the next person can also join me, and then we can create bigger shifts. There are some allies out there, and I’m grateful for them. I do think it is shifting the narrative that the burden should not be on people who are currently the most disenfranchised.
Santos: How do we shift this fight against racism from the labor of a few individuals to all the stakeholders in the theatre industry?
Ayite: How do we all take ownership that the work has to be done? It is hard work. A lot of times you gotta dig through all the slug and all the pain. That is an ongoing process. It’s not a thing where you’re like, okay, I’m gonna take this course and be healed.
Santos: What was it about Chicken and Biscuits that drew you to the show, and made you say, oh yeah, I need to work on this one?
Ayite: Death and funerals.
These late 60s styles would actually be en vogue today! Colors and silhouettes of the 60s/70s are back in style. The gorgeous burnt orange skirt and mustard colored knit sweater would be perfect for anyone’s fall wardrobe. – Photo: Detroit 67/Baltimore Center Stage. Jen Schriever Lighting Design.
Ayite: Death, funerals, and comedy right? Having been to a handful of funerals in my life, people react to death in a multitude of ways. There are times where the grief comes across through great joy or comes across through deep sadness, or anger. For me, that cocktail of what can unfold during a funeral, how people show up to a funeral, and dealing with family dynamics is very interesting.
Family dynamics are very tricky and investigating what type of armor individuals wear to the funeral because they want to protect themselves because they want to hide who they really are. When you think about the human experience, it’s a wonderful palette to explore different human emotions and to explore how people show up in clothes. Then you throw comedy on top of that!
Santos: When you go into the process of tech, do you have to say to yourself, I can't be precious about this work because it's going to change? Or, is there a moment where you're like this design I made is truly sickening! I can't wait for them to see it!
Ayite: There are moments where I’m like, “Oh man, my assistant and I, we did that!” You can tell because the actors love it. They feel like they're able to connect deeply with their character. So, there are moments where I can celebrate and say we're almost there. The beauty about this job, though, is that it's a living thing.
So, yes, I cannot be precious about my work. People will love it, and some people will hate it. There are times where I love something, however, when you see the actor moving in the space, I’m like oh it's restricting them. I have to change it, or it just doesn't feel right based on where the actor has landed. You have four weeks of rehearsals, things shift and change. The playwrights’ intentions might shift slightly, so I cannot be precious. I mean, that is the exciting thing about theatre. It’s live and you have to respond, and you do want to create things that move people.
Santos: Once the show opens, and audience members come and see it, what do you hope they will take away from your work?
Ayite: I don't know that I have a hope they’ll take anything from my specific work but from the project itself. I'm hoping that the piece as a whole takes them on a journey where they're able to laugh, they're able to see themselves in one of the characters regardless of race, and they will find joy. But, they’re also able to release.
I’m hoping that for a small part of them, just from experiencing what’s happening on stage, gives them space to take a deep sigh and says it’s going to be alright.
The way the navy socks matched the lining of the collar and trims of the baseball jersey in this outfit jumped out to me. Matching colors from top to bottom is vital in Black men’s fashion, and I appreciated finding that level of detail here. Also, highly recommend purchasing an oversized baseball jersey for your own collection. It is a look! – Photo: A Soldier's Play - Rob Demery, J. Alphonse Nicholson and McKinley Belcher III. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.