Award-winning costume designer Toni-Leslie James turned her talents to the world premiere of White Noise, Suzan-Lori Parks’ (SLP) visceral new play about contemporary racism at The Public Theater. Directed by Oskar Eustis in the intimate Anspacher, the play runs through May 5, with sets by Clint Ramos, lighting by Xavier Pierce, sound by Dan Moses Schreier, and projections by Lucy Mackinnon. James talks about her designs for this play fraught with issues that come up in the interracial friendships of Dawn, Ralph, Leo, and Misha.
Live Design: What was your biggest challenge in terms of the costumes?
Toni-Leslie James: My biggest challenge began with the character of Leo (Daveed Diggs), who begins the play alone on stage with a 10-minute monologue. This character is the face of the play and sets the tone of the evening and is an edgy African-American artist that had achieved a certain amount of buzz and fame, until he didn’t. The production time period and costumes are contemporary, and puzzling over how to represent him and his status as the almost, but not quite, next big thing presented a great WTF challenge.
LD: How do you find the contemporary clothes?
LTJ: I hand-pick costume items from the jump. I’m not a “let’s run around and find that magical element” type of designer, preferring to make concrete and affirmable decisions about who a character is and what they represent in order to have an open and honest dialogue with the director and playwright (if living) about my costume choices. I found an amazing shirt by Thom Browne that seemingly, at my first glance, was printed with black men reaching towards the heavens. It actually is printed with men of all colors swimming. This shirt was a perfect metaphor for the character of Leo, reaching out and swimming towards who knows where. This shirt, along with his factory-distressed, ridiculously expensive Golden Goose high top sneakers, tells a Public Theater audience who he is. After I found this shirt, the entire play fell into place for me.
LD: What about cues from the script such as the “SLAVE” t-shirt?
LTJ: The “SLAVE” t-shirt and correction collar are written in the script. When I designed it and sent it to my incredible illustrator, Gloria Kim, and received the actual sketch, I was ashamed at how compelling and horrible it actually looked. The sketch is all of the above. The show is so beautifully written and incredibly flavorful from a costume designer’s perspective. Dawn is so correct and Brooklyn chic/safe, I think I wrote SLP and Oscar, I felt that Dawn and Leo live in Bed-Sty while Misha/Ralph are Fort Greene/Clinton Hill (my neighborhood), with Dawn wearing an iWatch (curiously cut) and clean crisp clothes with few patterns. She only wears noticeable patterns with Misha, and when she’s getting out of town. Misha is presenting an image for her “Ask A Black” video podcast, with vintage 1970s Mexican silver borrowed from her Moms, and the patterned clothing of the upscale hip, but actually stylish appropriations of black girl chic. Ralph is a safe, white guy with money he tries not to flaunt, fighting to stay connected to his angry past, until he embraces his power.
LD: What other costumes stand out?
TLJ: My favorite costume, after the Leo shirt, is Ralph’s robe in the African print. He wears it with ease, but my take was that Misha’s moms, who have never been on board with her relationship with Ralph because of who Ralph is, not because he is white, gave him this robe as a joke. Ralph just didn’t get the joke. Being able to contribute and construct back-story to characters in a new play is sublime. I’m continually grateful to have the opportunity for such meaningful collaborations.