The Art of Designing Black Hair for the Stage
By JEN GUSHUE
Tuesday, March 12, 2019  •  
Tue Mar 12, 2019  •  
Design  •   0 comments Share This
"It's a fit for me to do these type of stories, because I understand the nuances of the black community and black hair."

How Cookie Jordan brings talent and cultural knowledge to her work

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Looking at Cookie Jordan's extensive New York City stage credits, it seems like she's the go-to hair and wig designer for productions with predominantly black casts. After all, her résumé includes Eclipsed, Once on This Island, Choir Boy, An Octoroon, Fairview, Sugar in Our Wounds and School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, which earned her a Drama Desk Award nomination. But Jordan will not be pigeonholed. "I did Sunday in the Park with George, too," she says. "Of course I can do Caucasian hair -- my training is in opera!"

Before making her debut on the New York theatre scene in 2008 as the makeup designer for Lincoln Center's South Pacific, Jordan spent a decade at the Metropolitan Opera, and 20 years at the Santa Fe Opera prior to that. But it was her gig as the makeup, hair and wig designer for Broadway's Fela!, a bio-musical about Nigerian Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, that showcased her skill with black hair. "We had dreadlock wigs, braided wigs, beaded wigs, every kind of hair style," she says. "It was beautiful."

Currently, Jordan's work can be seen in Jordan E. Cooper's Ain't No Mo', an odyssey about racial injustice at the Public Theater, and Tori Sampson's If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, a modern-day take on a West African fable about beauty at Playwrights Horizons. It's clear that her fellow black artists appreciate her expertise and eye for what looks good on their heads.

Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole and Paige Gilbert in
Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole and Paige Gilbert in 'School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play'

"Whenever an actor knows that Cookie's on a show, they just start jumping up and down because she just makes the most beautiful hair," says Leah C. Gardiner, the director of If Pretty Hurts. Cast member Mirirai Sithole agrees. "I was fortunate enough to work with Cookie on School Girls, so I was thrilled to know that she would be designing this show," she says. "She has such a meticulous eye and collaborative spirit when it comes to her wig design."

Jordan also has incredible dedication. Each wig in If Pretty Hurts took more than 40 hours to ventilate -- the process of tying each individual hair into a wig cap custom molded to each actor's head -- plus another 40 hours of styling. In Sithole's case, even that wasn't enough to satisfy the designer. "I kept changing Mirirai's wig until it was right," Jordan says. "Hours and hours of braids, then trying the wig on and going, 'No, it needs to be softer.' So we unbraided it all and braided it all again." According to Sithole, the end result is "a wig that feels deeply personal and true not only to my character, but to how I connect to playing her."

Considering If Pretty Hurts puts concepts of attractiveness and jealousy under a microscope, Jordan's wig and hair design are key to making it work, especially since the actors perform on a bare stage with very few props. "These are just beautiful black bodies moving in space, telling a story with their words and their mouths and their hair," Gardiner says. The script doesn't specify a geographical location, so the director seized the opportunity to explore the African diaspora throughout the world. "We were really interested in capturing everywhere black lives exist," she explains. "If you're walking down the streets of New York City, you can see beautiful black people wearing these clothes and wearing that hair. And you can see the same in Britain, in Paris, in Africa, in Trinidad, in Canada."

While many wig designers don't want audiences to realize that actors are wearing hairpieces, Jordan sometimes calls attention to their artifice. She teaches a seminar at NYU and Yale called "Demystifying Black Hair," and one of her first lessons is how important wigs are in the everyday lives of many black women. "People think that if a black woman is wearing a wig, you can't mention it or that there's a shame involved," she explains. "That's not it. It's just fashion. It's a very sensitive topic. That's why I think it's a fit for me to do these types of stories, because I understand the nuances of the black community and black hair."

For example, in Ain't No Mo', there's a scene at a Sunday church service where Jordan knew the characters would be sporting obvious wigs. At another point, there's a sendup of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Not only do the characters wear wigs, they keep taking them off and putting them back on.

The cast of
The cast of 'Once on This Island'

Jordan is well aware that black hair has long been politicized. Just last month, the New York City Commission on Human Rights voted to ban discrimination based on hair. Although it applies to people of all ethnic backgrounds, it came in the wake of a series of high-profile stories about black people who were punished or harassed due to their hairstyles. That's why Jordan strives to celebrate freedom of self-expression in her stage work, allowing every actor she collaborates with to feel comfortable, powerful and (assuming it's character appropriate) beautiful.

"I've always valued the notion that your hair is your crown, and Cookie has given us the ultimate symbols of black girl royalty," says Phumzile Sitole, an If Pretty Hurts cast member. "It's truly my first wig experience with someone so in touch with how we as black woman wear our pride on our heads. She's a visionary."

Ever modest, Jordan is quick to shift the focus off her own accomplishments and onto the wearers of her designs. "I don't care if they're wearing a blonde wig or their hair is straightened or they're wearing an Afro or they're wearing dreads," she says. "I think black women and men are the most beautiful when they feel beautiful."

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TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. Go here to browse our current offers.

Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. Follow her on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Phumzile Sitole, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy and Mirirai Sithole in If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka. Photo by Joan Marcus.




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