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The two-time Tony nominee is busier than ever with 1776, A Beautiful Noise and Ain't No Mo'
Emilio Sosa is making up for lost time. The 55-year-old costume designer admits he wasn't a theatre kid while growing up in the Dominican Republic and the South Bronx. But that changed when he started sweeping the floors of a costume shop at age 21.
More than three decades later, Sosa is an in-demand Broadway costume designer. In fact, his work is featured in three productions running right now—1776, Ain't No Mo' and the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise—with two more opening in the spring: Sweeney Todd and Good Night, Oscar. He's equally adept at musicals and plays, has earned two Tony nominations, was the first artist of color to design the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes and was named the Chair of the American Theatre Wing last year.
So, how did he go from cleaning up to crafting costumes?
As a teen, Sosa developed an interest in art, taking free classes on Saturdays at Parsons School of Design and attending the High School of Art and Design. While studying fashion design at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, he landed a summer job as a shopper for Grace Costumes, traveling all over the city to purchase buttons, fabric and anything else that was needed.
"I realized how much I enjoyed the storytelling aspect of creating costumes," Sosa recalls. "Fashion is a business and the commercial always trumps the design. Theatre was different. It flipped it for me, the costumes conveyed the story."
That realization inspired Sosa to stay late, volunteering to sweep the shop at the end of the day so he could watch the drapers at work. "It changed my perception of what the art form is," he says. "It gave me an entire sense of admiration for the maker—not just the designers who get all the glory and the fanfare, but the actual artisans: the beaders, the wig makers, the hat makers, the flower makers, the belt makers. These are the people that I was interacting with at a very young age."
Gigs with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Celine Dion and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra followed, along with styling music videos for hip-hop artists Kid 'n Play, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa. Soon he was hired by acclaimed director Spike Lee as an in-house stylist for his commercials. Working with Lee taught Sosa some valuable lessons, including the power of shorthand.
"Commercials are 15 or 30 seconds," Sosa says. "I would send out a character with all these beautiful little details, and Spike was like, 'Hold up. Emilio. You have two seconds when this actor gets on screen to tell the people who that person is. They're not going to care about the vintage lace and the back-of-the collar ruffle.' I had to focus on telling the story, so that made me become hypervigilant. Each piece has to convey something about the character."
Another lesson Sosa learned from Lee: How to communicate with confidence.
"He was the first director to ever put me in a conference room in front of executives where I had to explain and defend my designs, which is 90% of the work," Sosa says, adding that the first time he did that, the meeting got off to a bumpy start when a joke he told fell flat. "He taught me how you get up. You get up and you defend your work. You have to make people believe it and get excited about it."
Sosa made his Broadway debut in 2002 with the original production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog, which is being revived this season and costumed by one of his protégés, Dede Ayite. A decade passed before he designed another Broadway show, Diane Paulus' production of Porgy and Bess, which earned Sosa his first Tony Award nomination.
"In those 10 years, I was out there hustling and struggling and trying to make a living because it's not easy to get on Broadway," he says. "I don't take it for granted. I've had spurts when I wasn't the hot kid in town. I was out there working regionally, all over the country. I will take anything. That's one thing I learned from my mentor, Geoffrey Holder," a performer, director, choreographer and artist who won Tony Awards for his costume design and direction of The Wiz. "He was like, 'Never say no to a project. Say yes. And then figure out how to do it.'"
Sosa's subsequent Broadway credits include Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill, On Your Feet! and Motown the Musical featuring a "unique tsunami of costumes," nearly 400 outfits. But he's been particularly busy on the New York stage since the end of the pandemic-induced shutdown. Last season, he designed costumes for the Broadway productions of Skeleton Crew and Trouble in Mind, with the latter earning him his second Tony nomination. And in the past six months, he's worked on two Off-Broadway shows, …what the end will be and Shakespeare in the Park's As You Like It, plus the three productions he currently has running on Broadway.
"I'm super excited to have three different types of shows at once," he says. Not only do they "show my range of design, but also they all have a message that I firmly believe in. I think this is a season where everyone gets to see all the colors in my Crayola box."
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, he's embracing this moment and going with his gut. "The more time you have with a project, the more you can change it," Sosa says. "My first instinct—I'm learning more and more to go with that. A lot of times that's what wins and that's what they like. Once I start to overthink it, I try to please too many people, then I kind of lose my essence."
One of the ways he maintains his essence is to separate his projects by using different teams at different locations, while reserving his studio for independent work. "I'm very good at compartmentalizing my brain," he says. The shows are "all like little pods, and once I'm in the pod, I'm immersed in that world, and I'm able to just focus on where I am."
Even with all he has going on, Sosa still finds time to mentor up-and-coming designers of color, and his work with the American Theatre Wing focuses on long-term equity goals, especially diversifying the industry.
"It's about helping young people come into the industry," he says. "How do we make it equitable for everyone? What are the resources we need to have in place so that the theatre can reflect the community it is in? That's why I'm a big advocate of supporting your community theatres. Having art in your life doesn't automatically mean you're going be an artist, but it means that you'll be a better human."
Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at CareyPurcell.com. She recently published her first book: From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.
Top image: Emilio Sosa.