How to be corny and critical: An inside view in conversation with costume designer Sarafina Bush

Issue Three: How to Dance in Ohio
abigail jean-baptiste
December 28, 2023
abigail jean-baptiste

abigail jean-baptiste (all pronouns) is a theater maker, director, and writer born & based in New York City with roots in Haiti and the American South. guided by questions around blackness and feminization and kinship, their work uses fragmented language, repeatable gestures, and found objects in a search to build nonsensical ways of being and to reimagine understandings of the past. currently: FY2023 NYSCA Grantee, I Am Soul Directing Residency at National Black Theater, The Audrey Residency at New Georges and HGB BOLD Resident Director at Northern Stage. previously: Project Number One Artist at Soho Repertory Theater, Bushwick Starr Reading Series, Resident Lead Artist at Mercury Store. In 2020, she was named a “Powerhouse Women Directors Theatre Fans and Industry Pros Alike Need to Know” by Playbill. most recently: in search of (black) comfort at JACK (director and writer), tia pray a sound by a.k. payne at Beyond The Binary (co-director), ‘Bov Water by Celeste Jennings at Northern Stage (director). A 2018 Lilly Award Winner. B.A. Princeton University. Upcoming: Priestess of Twerk by Nia Witherspoon at HEREarts (dramaturg)

How to Dance in Ohio a new Broadway musical playing now at the Belasco Theatre — is based on a documentary of the same name. The show’s marketing declares that How to Dance… centers the narratives of seven autistic individuals so, in a sea of ableist work and practices on Broadway, it was a nice change to read that autistic people were involved, not only as performers but in some roles offstage as well. Yes, only baby steps, but can capitalist-driven Broadway ever be a site of true disability justice?

I wanted to learn more about the creative process of How to Dance… because most critical conversations around a production flippantly ignore the fact that immeasurable labor and creativity go into every moment of the things we’re seeing. In order to honor this creative energy, I looked to someone who knew exactly what went into the making of this musical: costume designer Sarafina Bush. As a theater artist myself, I am particularly interested in talking to and about designers as crucial world builders and storytellers we don’t get to hear from as frequently. 

Sarafina Bush is a big-hearted costume designer with an impressive body of work that runs the gamut of topic and scope. If you haven’t seen her work, you need to look up photos. Her portfolio includes, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozoke Shange (Broadway), Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu (Broadway), The Outsiders musical at La Jolla Playhouse, Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery at Playwrighhts Horizons and now, How to Dance in Ohio.

After I saw the show, I had the thrill of talking to Sarafina over video call.

The Cast of HTDIO. Photo Credit: Curtis Brown

abigail: It's so good to see you and to hear your voice. And it's thrilling to see your name everywhere. I want to hear about your process on this show. Maybe let’s start chronologically. What was the initial invitation to collaborate on this piece? 

Sarafina: The production was looking for a costume designer to co-design with an autistic fashion designer [Michael Ryan Andolsek] who had never done theater before. They were looking for someone who had the experience of doing musicals and someone who was known for being a people-first, kind and compassionate designer. I had a conversation with Sammi Cannold, the director, and Michael (who ended up having to step away to take care of some family when we were doing the Syracuse Stage production). We talked about how we like to work before we even talked about the show itself. That was the center that gave us the foundation to build a show on.

abigail: Could talk a bit more about what your people-first process looks like? 

Sarafina: We’re working so closely with actors. It's a very collaborative and living art form. I never want to put someone on stage in something that they feel uncomfortable with. What was exciting about this show was that [the producers] were determined to practice what they preach, so they did access needs surveys with every single performer on the stage, both neurodivergent and neurotypical. And so I was able to, from the beginning, plan that into the design and put the physical and spiritual well-being of the performers at the top of the priority list. We set the tone that we were in it together. 

abigail: Was the team interested in explicitly prioritizing a target audience who relates to the identities in the show? Was that a piece of the conversation at all?

Sarafina: Not specifically with me. I'm sure that those conversations were had, but those tend to be conversations that designers don't really get included in. That's something I have wondered about because I look at this show and I feel like there's something for everybody in it and at the same time it’s important and groundbreaking. And to have this community of so many people being represented on stage. Of course, it's always nice when you have a show that can be universal, but it is especially important to have a show where underrepresented people can see it.

abigail: In this country, a lot of the conversation around ableism and disability is from a white and wealthy perspective. When working on this show, what was the conversation about race and gender in relation to disability? What was the balance of all of the experiences being held and referenced?

Sarafina: I remember early on at Syracuse [Stage], once I got casting and realized that the actor, Darlesia Cearcy was going to be our lone Black parent on stage, she and I had so many conversations about what that meant. We talked about race in this country and in Ohio and we talked about how she, as a Black woman, would present. Would she be loud and proud or assimilating? We talked about it at length, especially with her character. Then, with Desmond Luis Edwards (who plays Remy) and Imani Russell (who plays Mel), we talked a little less explicitly about race. For Mel, we definitely talked about class, and for both characters we talked mostly about gender identity.

It’s been interesting on shows like this where we have characters based on real people and we have people playing those characters whose identities don't totally align. So we had multiple conversations about what direction we wanted to go and what our responsibility was to the person who the character was based on. For example, in the documentary, Dr. Amigo, Ashley Amigo, and Remy are the only people of color; the community is very very white. So it was a decision that the creative team made to not cast along those exact lines because they wanted to make sure that all kinds of people could see themselves on stage.

Desmond Luis Edwards as Remy. Photo Credit: Curtis Brown

abigail: There's a weird thing that happens for me as a theater watcher where, if the cast is entirely white, then, okay, I'm watching an all-white show. But as soon as you add non-white races or nonbinary genders, other sexualities into the picture, the centering of the norm almost feels more potent. So, though I’m of course happy that the producers widened the casting pool, it also weirdly made me more frustrated that those altered folks (the characters of Remy and Mel) weren’t centered. Most noticeably, they did not have scenes with parents and love interests. It feels like a weird inverse of the thing that I obviously don't want to happen, which is like no people of color–

Sarafina: Exclusion and erasure. Yeah, it’s something that I do think about often with all shows. And it's something that I just personally have been interested in— the ways race, class and gender intersect with neurodivergence and autism. And the rates at which people of color, women, and especially queer people go undiagnosed. Because the research that is out there is based on a certain standard of cis, white, hetero makeup. So when you add other identities to that it is a totally different thing. That in itself could be a whole show. I hope that people at the very least walk away seeing there's so much more to learn.

abigail: Remy could have a whole show

Sarafina: Remy could have a-

abigail: Spin. Off.

Sarafina: I would pay so much money to see that.

abigail: I do wish there were many more scenes and songs for Remy and Mel.

Sarafina: I'm always of two very different minds about it. Sometimes I think, “oh, I wish they were more in the forefront.” And sometimes I'm like, “you know what? I kind of love that they can just be. It doesn't have to be all about their identity.” And I think at any given moment you could ask me the question and I would respond differently.

abigail: Is there anything you want audiences to know as someone who helped create the show?

Sarafina: I want people to come in without the expectation of what a Broadway show is and allow themselves to be with the show, to be with the people in the show, to experience all of the joy, magic and beauty of it…without the expectation of what the mold is supposed to look like. That’s what the show is about: The mold isn’t real.

abigail: And, I have to know, just generally, what are your musical theater loves as an audience member?

Sarafina: I'm going to be so corny. It’s How to Dance in Ohio. I’m not kidding you! I have such a deep love for this show and the fact that it doesn't follow a mold but still feels emotionally intense, joyful, giddy, hysterical. It's like a spiritual event watching this show. If you allow yourself to, you can discover things about yourself through watching this show. And that's huge.

How to Dance in Ohio is running now on Broadway at the Belasco Theater.

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