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Three-time Tony nominee Toni-Leslie James on her very busy return season
Toni-Leslie James didn't just make it as a costume designer. The self-taught Broadway vet and Yale School of Drama professor tirelessly fought her way into the closets of the theatre industry. "I don't have a graduate degree, but I was never without a job," James says with a coy smile, recalling her early days hustling for gigs. "I worked my way up from being a costume PA, to wardrobe assistant at Dance Theatre of Harlem, to wardrobe supervisor for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater." This year, James celebrates three decades of designing costumes on Broadway (and more years beyond) with a particularly busy season. Her work can currently be seen in three productions: the musical Paradise Square and the play Birthday Candles, both on Broadway, and the musical Suffs at The Public Theater.
Successful as she is, James' unconventional journey is not lost on her. She realizes Black women rarely get such opportunities. "Broadway needs to do more," she says when asked about equity and inclusion in theatre. "I don't know what that includes, but I do know that on stage we are seeing a wealth of diversity. Behind the scenes, it's not as much."
While James has designed costumes for more than 20 Broadway shows over 30 years (her inaugural production was Jelly's Last Jam in 1992, for which she earned her first of three Tony nominations) and received the TDF/Irene Sharaff Young Master Award back in 1996, she notes that her 2017 contract with Come From Away was the first one that treated her equally to white designers. "It was an eye-opener for me," she says. "I was paid correctly and respectfully in the same way that my design peers were paid. I got the same royalty. We were all embraced and protected. That was the first Broadway show that I worked on where I felt that type of respect."
James sat down with TDF Stages to discuss her "crazy" spring, her creative process and why she "annoys" directors.
Ayanna Prescod: What makes you say yes to a project?
Toni-Leslie James: I love working on musicals, but I also love an intense deep dive into a play. If the script is compelling and interesting, I'll say yes. I don't normally think about how the show is cast because that's not my job. I think about the script itself and if it speaks to me. I also consider if there is something that I can uniquely bring to the table.
Prescod: When you start a project, what does your design process look like?
James: It begins with the script and a bit of research. I read the script several times, do all my research and then start designing at the top of the play. I annoy directors because I ask a lot of questions. I'll bring them some research and ask, "Am I going the right way?" I'll design scene by scene. For me, I think that makes for a more cohesive design. I'm able to deal with things I haven't pre-thought. I'm not into putting anything on stage that doesn't really belong to the character. I do have an ego, but my ego doesn't supersede the character. If it's not right for the character, I won't put them in it.
Prescod: Do you usually have free range on the looks you create, or is it more of a collaborative process?
James: It would be really frightening for me if a director said, "Do whatever you want." I really rely on the director's input. It is a total collaborative effort. Lately, in most cases, I've developed the design with the set designer beforehand. I'm building my characters from the environment created by the set designer. I really like that because it saves me a lot of time and a lot of meetings. So, the color palette and everything goes into the environment that we're populating. To have a really great product and be able to develop characters, you have to have input.
Prescod: You've been incredibly busy since theatres reopened in New York City last year, designing costumes for four Broadway shows (Flying Over Sunset and Thoughts of a Colored Man last fall, Paradise Square and Birthday Candles this spring) and two Off Broadway (The Visitor last fall and Suffs this spring, both at The Public Theater). How do you do it?
James: This year has been crazy, I have to admit. Right now, with two Broadway shows and a new Off-Broadway musical and also a new a movie, it's been a lot. For Rustin, a new film produced by Netflix and Michelle and Barack Obama's Higher Ground Productions, I was out of town in Pittsburgh from August until January. Coming back, it was sort of like: Bam! Bam! Bam! With Suffs, Birthday Candles and Paradise Square, I have been blessed with brilliant, brilliant associates. I wouldn't have been able to do the shows without the support of the wardrobe staff. I also had a new Christmas Carol that went up in Minnesota, and The Visitor and Thoughts of a Colored Man, all of which I did not get to see. That's never happened to me before. I feel blessed, but I won't do this again because I like being fully connected to my projects.
Prescod: Of your recent projects, which was the most fun to create for?
James: I had so much fun with Suffs! I'd never done the 1910s before. It's not a period that's frequently done except in England because they do a lot of World War I and pre-World War I productions. So, it was fun developing those costumes and characters at The Public Theater, which is a spiritual home for me. I'm now finding all of these spaces that are welcoming and letting me in and trusting me enough to let me do my thing. That's very important for designers. When you find an environment like that, you want to keep going back to it.
Birthday Candles was also really interesting because Debra Messing never leaves the stage [as Ernestine, a character who ages from 17 to 107]. Initially, I had a dress built for her. Then we got on set and I realized that the color was wrong because it was the same color as her hair and it brought everything down. Then the director said, "I always felt like Ernestine was the sun." So, we changed to a yellow dress, and it was just remarkable what happened. It was interesting because you're trying to convey history around a woman who ages 100 years but never has a costume change.
Prescod: How has the pandemic impacted your work?
James: It's been horrible! The prices have increased at the costume fabric houses in town and supply has decreased. They don't have the yardage of cloth that I want anymore. It's also taking a long time for shipping. There's a dress for Birthday Candles that I ordered fabric for. I paid for it and I'm getting ready to call PayPal, because we never got that fabric. Never got it! So, this pandemic has affected everything.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Ayanna Prescod is a theatre journalist who's written for Variety, Harper's Bazaar and New York Theatre Guide, and a producer who helped bring Pass Over, Is This A Room and Dana H. to Broadway. She is also a Drama Desk nominator. Follow her at @AyannaPrescod. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Phillipa Soo and the cast of Suffs at The Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.