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She Gives Us Strength - FOR COLORED GIRLS... Creative Team Interview #4 (Toni-Leslie James)

Ntozake Shange left behind a legacy, creating a collective language for many women of color with her work. To celebrate this revival and the all-women of color creative team of FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF, we invited photographer CHRISTINE CHAMBERS to capture the creative team through the lens of her portrait photography. Outside the photography studio, we asked the team to reflect on what being on this production and part of an all-women of color creative team means today and for the future.
 
Fifth in this series of interviews is Toni-Leslie James.

What does the legacy of for colored girls... mean to you, and how has that impactedyour work?

When for colored girls... premiered in 1976, I was just beginning my sophomore year in college as a theater major. The play was like an explosion, opening up my world that there may be a place for me to exist in the theater. Theater studies regarding women of color at Ohio State University at that time was still rooted in the classics, and even though Adrienne Kennedy is an alumna of OSU, I don’t think she was mentioned once in the discourse.
 
What has your experience working on an all women of color design team been like?

It is revelatory to have women of color in positions of power, from the
director, creative team, and throughout management. It creates a dialogue of shared experiences that’s invaluable. I’m grateful to The Public for always being out front in practicing what they preach in support of women of all colors in the room.
 
What is your biggest challenge as a designer?

Creating a visual context to tell the story through clothing, finding the right tone for a production in order to serve the director’s vision. What’s too much/too little? Suppressing my ego to over design something that should be simple and true.
 
Who/what inspires you in your designs?

In designing for colored girls..., the director’s mandate was to create clothing that paid homage to the past while creating clothing that was contemporary, yet personal to the actor. I found a design line that had printed photographs in the fabric prints, along with a story in the New York Times where the upholstery fabric also featured photographs of people of color in the print. This inspired me regarding making the costumes personal to the actor, and bringing the past into the present. We asked the actors to send in photographs of their most beloved female relative and used the photographs to create the prints of their clothing.
 
What is your advice to women of color interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?
Stay focused on your own work and don’t worry about people who don’t worry about you. I find this world can sometimes be more discouraging than supportive to young
designers of color. If you have the desire and passion required to become an artist in the theater, you must stay focused on your personal goals. Tune out the noise.
 
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo by Christine Chambers