Arts

5 Broadway Veterans on Race and Representation in Theater Design

Design for live performance can cast a surreptitious spell, shaping an audience’s perceptions with stimuli we might not even notice consciously: a change of light, a snatch of sound, a detail of costume or décor. It’s encoded language, and we respond to it viscerally.

To the lighting designer Jane Cox, the Broadway veteranwho directs the theater program at Princeton University, that dynamic makes design ripe for interrogation in the context of antiracism. A course that she and the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins taught, about race and lighting design, was one of the seeds of a multidisciplinary symposium, “Sound & Color — The Future of Race in Design,” taking place Saturday and Sunday at the Park Avenue Armory. Organized by Cox and Tavia Nyong’o, a curator at the Armory, it will include commissioned installations by young designers of color.

Cox and four other Broadwaydesigners participating in the symposium spoke recently by phone about race and culture in design. These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Mimi Lien, Set Designer

Mimi Lien won a Tony Award in 2017 for the set design of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”Credit…Emma Pratte

Designers for live performance create and curate an experience, right, by juxtaposing visual, sonic, tactile, spatial elements within a time-based structure. All of these chosen elements carry so much cultural meaning and emotion. The job of designers is to handpick those elements and create a design vocabulary that communicates narrative or a particular emotion. With that comes so much responsibility, because our landscape is constructed with the goal of telling a particular story or reaching a particular audience with really calibrated visual and sensory cues.

There is a lot of talk about representation right now. But for me, the real interest of this symposium is the aesthetic question. Like, why do people have certain associations with certain colors, and with darkness versus light? That is a huge cultural, media, anthropological question. And I’m really interested in how the two things intersect: What is the intersection between representation and aesthetics?

Jane Cox, Lighting Designer

Jane Cox was a Tony Award nominee in 2022 for her work on “Macbeth.”Credit…Evan Alexander

Branden says, “Racism is a visual ism.” And he’s right. Racism is perpetrated or understood through how we see other people. How we hear other people. And that happens through the way people are dressed, through the spaces they inhabit, through the way they move, through sounds. When they’re depicted in an image or on a stage or in a movie, design impacts enormously how you see people and how you feel about them. Who’s the center of focus, who’s not the center of focus. Theater traffics in unconscious symbolism, and so does racism.

My great hope is to investigate more deeply the ways in which our imaginations are colonized by our specific cultures. Designers are people who believe in our senses. How does sensory input impact these questions of racism? The point of the weekend is to try to start to find a language to talk about these things.

Justin Ellington, Sound Designer

Justin Ellington was a Tony nominee in 2020 for “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” and his work can be seen on Broadway in “Topdog/Underdog” and “Ohio State Murders.”Credit…Justin Ellington

“Race.” [sighs] That word. The angle I’ll be coming from is more cultural than race. A lot of the work that we do, especially with the contemporary work, is very specific about certain communities. There are people that live in those communities, and then there are people that need to do research to understand what’s going on. Living in a place and then hearing about that place that you live in is often drastically different.

I was part of a workshop recently and some of the dialogue that was given to the Black characters, I was like, “I don’t know those people, never heard of those people.” Definitely imagined Blackness. As a designer, we need to read scripts and not just say, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Because you’ll find yourself in Act II like, “What?” It’s like, “That is a terrible misrepresentation of a people.” I’m a sound designer by title but I’m a storyteller first. Sometimes I feel like a cultural watchdog.

Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Lighting Designer

Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s work can be seen on Broadway in “Kimberly Akimbo.”Credit…Hunter Canning

There’s no such thing as racially correct lighting. So in some ways I’m free of that burden. What I have as a burden is a conversation that always comes up, about skin tone — how to be able to represent performers in the best light. Lighting white skin is just as complicated as lighting other, nonwhite skin because everybody’s skin tone reflects a different kind of way. You do have to train your eye.

Many years ago, I saw a show that had an Asian cast. There’s a certain idea of lighting design that we should always have a warm and a cool tone onstage. This lighting designer’s particular warm tone was very amber; amber gel has a lot of green in it. Literally the Asian people just looked like they had liver disease, warm and yellow because of the skin tone having more green in it.

Adam Rigg, Set Designer

Adam Rigg was a Tony nominee in 2022 for “The Skin of Our Teeth.”Credit…Ian Maddox

We’re taught rules. Especially in theater and opera, there are systems that we follow straight down to the architecture of the space. Which were mostly designed by white men. The future, for me, it’s not about wiping away that history. It’s about truly finding a way to find equity in the vocabulary.

I don’t want to get myself in trouble, but I’ll just say it. “Ain’t No Mo’” was originally designed by a team of BIPOC designers [Black, Indigenous and people of color]. The work was shocking and exciting. Then it moved to Broadway with still some designers of color, but some white cis male designers incorporated into the team. You could feel the cleverness draining from it. It felt safer. If we’re really trying to broaden Broadway — which is what the end goal for most of us is, to able to make a living — that representation goes down to design as well. Who was in the room not saying, “Hey, ‘Ain’t No Mo’,’ it’s a really Black play.” Who was just like, “Let some white people design it”?

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