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After a two-and-a-half-year delay, the costume designer is finally being feted by her peers at the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards
How in demand is costume designer Dede Ayite? While interviewing her about receiving this year's TDF/Kitty Leech Young Master Award, which will be presented through the TDF Costume Collection at the annual TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards next Friday, October 7, I received a press release announcing her as part of the creative team for Ohio State Murders, her second Broadway production this fall after Topdog/Underdog. It's yet another indication that the prize has been an excellent predictor of career success ever since it debuted in 1994.
Admittedly, Ayite's case is unique. The current Voting Committee, which includes former Young Master recipients Gregg Barnes, Suzy Benzinger, David Zinn, Robert Perdziola, Alejo Vietti and Daniel Lawson, chose her for this accolade in late 2019, which, she acknowledges, feels "like decades" ago. Before the 18-month pandemic-induced theatre shutdown; before her two 2020 Tony nominations for her exemplary work on Slave Play and A Soldier's Play; before the industry came roaring back to life in NYC during the second half of 2021.
Ayite actually costumed two shows during those early reopening months: Tectonic Theater Project's Seven Deadly Sins and Merry Wives at The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park. Ultimately, the 2021-2022 season turned out to be Ayite's busiest yet: Her designs were used in eight shows on Broadway and beyond, earning her a special 2022 Drama Desk Award for seeming "to have costumed half the actors of this theatre season with her designs… and demonstrating a knack for conveying characters' means, values and aspirations before the actors utter a word."
While Ayite is in a different place now than when she originally got the call about the Young Master Award, her enthusiasm hasn't waned. "Oftentimes, as an artist, you might doubt yourself. This award is special because it's being given to me by my community," she says. "That costume designers I respect have chosen to recognize me and celebrate me is a huge honor and a beautiful thing. It reminds me that I'm doing okay."
Ayite's costumes for Merry Wives inspired her "to go full on with my culture." Watch her work in action on PBS Great Performances, which is streaming the show for free.
Born and raised in Ghana, Ayite moved to the US as a teenager to live with her mother. She attended Lehigh University where she double-majored in theatre and behavioral neuroscience, then studied scenic design at the Yale School of Drama before segueing to costuming.
"As a young Black woman trying to give myself permission to be an artist, I initially focused on set design," Ayite recalls, pointing to pay equity issues in theatrical design. "Sometimes the costume designer is paid less than the assistant art designer! But, at some point, I thought to myself, I've always loved clothes. Even at Yale, I designed clothes for friends outside of class. If I'm really going to give this my all and be true to the thing that feels most important to me, I'm going to design costumes. That was a big lesson for me, taking that leap of faith."
She certainly landed on her feet. In just a decade, Ayite has racked up dozens of NYC credits and forged fruitful collaborations with directors Saheem Ali (Nollywood Dreams, Merry Wives, Fires in the Mirror, The New Englanders), Robert O'Hara (Richard III, BLKS, Slave Play, Mankind) and Kenny Leon (American Son, Children of a Lesser God, A Soldier's Play).
In terms of her creative process, Ayite says she starts with "the words on the page. The question the words are asking, or the things the words are provoking out of people. I'm always trying to dig a little deeper, looking to find ways to illuminate the characters through their costumes."
She's found her background in behavioral neuroscience comes in handy. "That part of the work is deeply fascinating to me, to really think about how we function as human beings," she says. "It's given me access into the human experience, which is so varied. When I design for a character, I think about how the person might dress based on their mental and emotional state. It's about adding texture to the world that we're creating."
A frequent customer of the TDF Costume Collection, Ayite says the extensive rental stock has helped her "represent my big ideas when the shows I was working on didn't have big budgets. It was instrumental in helping me show myself and my community that I could design big shows or period shows or really any type of show."
Ayite's costumes for Bella: An American Tall Tale at Playwrights Horizons offered a whimsical take on the Wild West.
The breadth of her work is breathtaking: bodacious ladies in the Wild West (Bella: An American Tall Tale); a Black maid turned Hollywood star as she evolves from the '30s to the '70s (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark); African women in glorious traditional garb (If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, Merry Wives); two diametrically opposed sisters, one conservative, the other attention hungry (Chicken & Biscuits). Even when buying off the rack, Ayite's clever choices help flesh out the characters. In Merry Wives, Falstaff's Tupac Shakur Poetic Justice T-shirt paired with baggy plaid shorts, a fuzzy blue bathrobe and gold chains communicate volumes about this hilarious oaf.
"The late Geoffrey Holder, Paul Tazewell, David Zinn—they all have the ability to complete a character in a way that leaves an imprint on you," Ayite says when asked about the costume designers who've inspired her. "I'm always striving to tap into that, too."
She's excited to see Zinn as well as her mentors, Clint Ramos and Emilio Sosa, along with other artists she admires in person at the Edison Ballroom next week when she finally picks up her Young Master Award after a two-and-a-half-year delay. "We're a community but we don't often get to see each other because we're all always busy," she says. "I can't wait to see designers I've assisted, who've seen me grow and work my way up. It's a huge blessing."
For TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards tickets or more information, please call 212-989-5855 ext. 219 or email email@example.com.
Top image: Dede Ayite at work. Photo courtesy of Ayite.