Ankara Print Dresses? These are not Shakespeare's "Happy Wives".

When Saheem Ali, the director of Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Merry Wives” this summer, thought about which costume designer...


When Saheem Ali, the director of Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Merry Wives” this summer, thought about which costume designer he wanted to create the clothes for the show, he knew right away it should be Dede Ayite. . The two have been friends for years and have worked together on “Twelfth Night” for the Public Mobile Unit, “Fires in the Mirror” at Signature Theater Company and the upcoming “Nollywood Dreams” at the MCC Theater.

“Dede billed this particular project to a T,” he said. Not only because of his artistic talent, he added, “but because of his identity”. He knew that the Ghanaian-born costume designer “would bring to the world an authenticity and a truth that I could not imagine any other designer conjuring for this particular world”.

In playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s modern version of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, the setting is Harlem instead of Berkshire, England; his West African characters, not English. Falstaff is a longtime Harlemite; the pages are Ghanaian; and the Fords are Nigerians. Costumes play as essential a role in the reimagining and new life of this work as the acting, writing, sets and more. In his review, New York Times chief theater critic Jesse Green, said Ayite’s costumes helped the production look “particularly grand.”

Ayite, a two-time Tony Award nominee for her work on “Slave Play” and “A Soldier’s Play,” knew she wanted costumes to reflect and highlight both the similarities and differences between cultures. She and her team purchased fabrics in Kumasi, Ghana, as well as fabric lairs in Yonkers and the Bronx. She said she hoped the costumes would add to the celebration of production from Harlem and other immigrant communities and what contributions, cultural and otherwise, immigrants make to the places they settle.

“I hope that as people experience the show and see these beautiful black bodies and shapes and these people on stage, they will really see them, embrace them and recognize that they exist and that they matter, ”Ayite said.

She recently spoke about her process, the art of marrying traditional and modern West African styles with modern Western designs and creating costumes that flatter and look natural on actors with different body shapes.

The characters Ekua and Kwame Page are from Ghana, and for some of the couple’s clothes, Ayite obtained woven kente fabric from that country. Madame Page is a traditional woman who always has her finger on the pulse, Ayite said. For one of Madame Page’s dresses, Ayite leaned on a traditional silhouette reminiscent of the 1950s, but it also has modern cutouts and design details.

“It looks like an Ankara print, but in some ways it looks like an elevated or modern version of an Ankara print,” Ayite said, adding that she chose three Adinkra symbols with specific meanings for add a playful touch to the garment. These symbols – representing strength and humility; unity; and wisdom and creativity – speak more broadly of Madame Page’s personality and character, which viewers become familiar with throughout the play.

With each costume, Ayite said, she wanted to create layers that symbolize a character’s origin and who they are as an individual.

Naturally, the Pages dress quite differently from the Fords, which are from Nigeria.

Ayite dove into her own knowledge of the countries and into a well of research into the different styles of dress not only within the two countries, in general, but also among different tribes. The Nigerian couple, for example, are Igbo.

For each character, Ayite played with different silhouettes and shapes. Madame Ford’s dress at the top of the show is a modern take on the traditional aso ebi, a type of uniform dress worn in solidarity for celebrations in Nigeria.

Traditionally, said Ayite, “it’s a bit longer, but we’ve made it a bit shorter, so we’re seeing a bit more leg.”

To bring Bioh’s version of Falstaff, Harlem’s loud, often clownish and inappropriate beer-bellied gamer to life, Ayite wanted to create a conversation, through the costume, of his Harlem roots and interactions with his neighbors. West Africans.

In one scene, when Falstaff goes to speak to Madame Ford, he puts on a colorfully printed Stacy Adams shirt that appears to have paint stains on it. Ayite pointed out that the shirt “is very American”, but there are elements of Africanity in her costumes that match her African neighbors. Falstaff has shorts with the Ghana Must Go common bag print. The print on the bag – a colorful red and white or blue and white plaid – has been around for decades.

“It brings me joy just to point out that as a people we come from somewhere and that the culture is deep, it is rich, and even if we can lose some things, there are essences that do not. never leave us, ”she said.

David Ryan Smith plays the Senegalese doctor Caius, whose personality is daring, just like his costumes. He is educated, has a bit of flair, and he has money. Each of her costumes takes up space and demands attention thanks to the silhouettes and vibrant colors.

“He wants to be seen,” Ayite said. “It’s a presence that we feel we have to recognize. You can not miss it.

Ayite has traveled to several African countries and when she arrived in the United States 20 years ago, she settled in Harlem. These experiences are perhaps the reason why the costumes in the show feel authentic to all the cultures they represent.

The research and her experience comes to life with each character, but especially stands out among the younger, perhaps more avant-garde characters like Anne Page.

She’s a first-generation American, who wears clothes you might see on West 116th Street and in a viral article on TikTok. Ayite explored how being a first generation young lady could affect the way she dressed. One scene, for example, shows Anne in a classic long white shirt. But at the top is a printed corset that feels both old and new, African and American.

“I changed the panels and the silhouette of this corset a bit, so I feel like it’s pushing a bit against the culture,” she said, “so it looks African, but we also have the impression – in terms of fashion – that she has our finger on the pulse because she has access to YouTube, Instagram, TikTok.

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