Playwright’s Note: In assigning responsibilities for “The Fire in Me”, I didn’t anticipate who would do the laundry when the final performance was done. Yep, it was me left holding the laundry bag. Serendipitously, the trips to the dry cleaner, the delicate cycles, and the hand washing, all gave me an even deeper appreciation of the thought and detail that Danita Lee, our Costume Designer, put into her work. My main criteria for my own clothing is comfort and warmth. I am not a visual person. I was remiss in fully appreciating the art of costume design until I saw how Danita applied the themes and emotional movement of the play into what the characters wore. Red and its many hues took on meaning in the journey of our protagonist, Lark. She is advised to “look for the helpers”, and Danita wisely incorporated a red color scheme to guide Lark on her journey. Our Silayan Filipina co-sponsor picked up on this and spread the word to its members to wear red to the Scripps Miramar Ranch Performance. Danita has taught me to think more about how I costume myself every day.
Playwright, arts advocate, and philanthropist Dea Hurston attended our final performance. She was impressed by the costumes, and then delighted when she saw who the designer was. Danita was the first recipient of The Hurston/SDSU MOXIE Fellowship. One of the project goals of “The Fire in Me” was to give opportunities to women and artists of color. Danita exemplifies the fulfillment of this goal. Read more about her work, as well as Dea Hurston’s role in her career, in this joint interview.
Tell us about yourself.
I am originally from the San Francisco Bay Area but have been in San Diego for about a decade now. I went to UCSD, from where I received degrees in Cognitive Science and Theatre. I found these two disciplines melded so well together in theatrical design, through which incredible amounts of information are quickly provided through the visuals onstage. Through my undergraduate production experiences, I learned I loved costume design and the psychology of dress. After about a year of freelancing as an assistant costume designer in the San Diego theatre community, I went to SDSU to get my MFA in Costume Design and Technology. I’ve been freelance costume designing ever since and have been fortunate enough to teach the subject at San Diego Mesa College.
Tell us about the process of designing costumes for “The Fire in Me”.
It all started with the script, written by the lovely Thelma de Castro. There was so much heart and love in it that I knew it was key to represent that heart and love in the costumes. Because we follow one person (Lark) throughout the piece, it was vital to see her transformation. When Christine Cervas Nathanson, the director, and I talked, we discovered it made sense to keep Lark’s youth and vulnerability but have her develop a sense of self. Translation: she dresses to present herself in a manner approved by everyone else at the beginning, and by the end, we see her in her comfort zone dressing for herself.
Then we had to find a way to flesh out all the people around Lark, the ones that pull her every which way and impact her self-esteem and notion of self-worth. Time and time again, I was drawn to red as a symbol of strength, since it is visually striking and emotionally powerful. So the people who really help Lark find her way through her pain–the survivors Mari and Evalina, the Catholic Channel’s host, Ms. Riza–show up in some variation of pink/red to show the power of Woman. (It really started with Lalahon, the goddess of fire and harvest, who truly connects with Lark’s deepest emotions, and trickled out from there.)
What was fun to work on for this play? What was challenging?
The best part about working on this play was finding the right rhythm and groove with the entire team. Everyone seemed to intuitively trust one another to do their part to make Thelma’s script come to life. I had the most fun dreaming up Lalahon’s costume, which needed to be quick and easy to change into but highly impactful. I imagined her to be somewhat of a beauty queen, gracefully floating through the scenes, guiding Lark to find her inner strength and worth. Lalahon’s costume was also a challenge, though, as it was a 100% original piece, built from unfinished materials.
Another challenge was finding visual ways to differentiate the characters from one another. Because there were only 5 actors, the various characters had to be represented differently–in costume, in voice, in body shape. Relatedly, some of the transformations from character to character had to happen in mere moments, so the costume pieces had to be both right and easy to get into.
You were the first recipient of The SDSU/MOXIE Fellowship, sponsored by Dea and Osborn Hurston. How did that experience support you?
As the first recipient of the SDSU/MOXIE Fellowship, I was afforded the opportunity to design costumes for brownsville song (b-side for Tray) by Kimber Lee (directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg). That was huge–as a student learning to hone my craft and to develop my own aesthetic, I interviewed for and was selected to professionally design costumes for a show!
The fellowship created a unique situation where “student” and “professional designer” were successfully married into one and allowed me an opportunity to showcase that the two entities were not mutually exclusive. Being able to design a show with MOXIE Theatre, yes, added another credit to my resume, but more importantly, let other theatre makers in San Diego know who I am and allowed them to see my work. After brownsville song, I have designed costumes for other MOXIE productions and pieces with various other theatres in the area. Without the Hurstons’ fellowship, I am certain it would have taken dozens of more projects and at least a few more years for me to get to where I am currently. I am very fortunate, and I am extremely grateful for Dea and Osborn Hurston’s support of young designers like myself.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The beauty of each project I get to participate in is that each playwright has precisely denoted who their characters are. The fun and challenge of my work is to fully represent them in what they wear. In order to get it as close to “right” as possible, I try to delve into the psychology of the character–what motivates them at the moment they’re wearing what they’re wearing, what idiosyncrasies will be on display when they interact with an accessory, what they are trying to hide or showcase, etc. Every person is complex, and the characters I get to dress are no different.
Dea Hurston is highly regarded in the community as a staunch supporter of inclusion and diversity with a strong focus on supporting women leaders, access in the arts for children, and employing artists of color. She believes San Diego artists should be able to make a living in San Diego and has mentored countless women in and out of the arts. Dea is actively sought out for her advice, mentorship, and financial support because she has successfully proven to be a mover and shaker who gets things done. She is a former commissioner of arts for the City of San Diego, board member at multiple organizations, retired schoolteacher, sponsor of countless diverse productions, and has chaired many fundraising events within the community resulting in raising millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations. She believes all service is philanthropy, not just writing a check. She also believes it is never too late to start something new and recently found success as a playwright and writes captivating stories inspired by the diverse experiences and people she has met along her journey. She continues to inspire and empower women to find their voice at every stage of life.
What is The Hurston SDSU/MOXIE Fellowship?
My husband Osborn and I sponsor several fellowships at various arts organizations. The Hurston SDSU/MOXIE Fellowship funds an internship for a preferably female SDSU/MFA student of color to design a show at MOXIE Theatre in their chosen field of design. Danita Lee received the first Hurston SDSU/MOXIE Fellowship in 2015 to work as a Costume Designer on the production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. She worked again at MOXIE in last year’s season on the well-received production of The Madres.
Why did you sponsor the fellowship?
We saw a need. Unpaid internships are valuable learning experiences that provide opportunities to network and exposure to lessons not taught in a classroom. Many students of color cannot afford to work an unpaid internship. Our fellowship helps to eliminate that issue and allows students to take advantage of internship opportunities.
How does the fellowship work?
Each season MOXIE Artistic Director Jen Thorn and staff interview the graduating MFA design students to make their selection. I chose to partner with MOXIE because I believe there is something about women learning from women and MOXIE’S leadership provides for a unique experience. MOXIE also provides the student support to design the show, where at other theaters the intern would assist the head designer.
What do you hope to accomplish with the fellowship?
Simply put, to increase opportunities for females and designers of color.
Tell us about your experience with Danita Lee as the first recipient.
The experience has been one of joy and a feeling of accomplishment. It’s been very gratifying to see Danita’s rapid success as a costume designer. Since her fellowship, she has been working all over town. I tried to get her for one of my shows, but she was too busy! That makes me very happy because it shows the fellowship works and has a direct impact in helping to build careers.
What were your impressions seeing Danita’s work in “The Fire in Me”?
It was a wonderful production. Well written, well directed, and acted, then all wrapped up in this amazing costuming that you normally don’t see absent a professional stage. I was not surprised to read Danita Lee did the costuming. Danita’s work is very distinctive and has this incredible feel to it, such attention to detail, such care to define each character’s look.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes. Congratulations to you! It was great seeing all the “girl power” working on your production and I am pleased to see Danita be a part of it. My hope is that others reading this blog are moved to support the fellowship program at SDSU.
2 thoughts on “An Interview with Danita Lee and Dea Hurston”
Have never taken costuming for granted, but I learned a great deal from Danita’s discussion of her work on this important play. And it was insightful to learn how Dea Hurston’s involvement helped facilitate this via intern fellowships! Have enjoyed these blogs – please keep them coming, as I want to know what is happening with The Fire in Me as it grows and develops.
It is essential that we remember who has helped us and why they do whatever it is that helps us to grow.Blessings, Alyce Smith Cooper