NEW YORK — One of the most intriguing parts of the costumes at the Broadway play “A Soldier’s Story” was something the audience likely never saw.
Each of the 12 actors wore uniforms carefully reflecting the attire of real soldiers in 1944. Their boots, too, were faithful replications. But around their necks were dog tags carefully etched with each character’s name, age and religious affiliation.
The dog tags — usually tucked under the costumes and out of sight — gave the actors something they could physically hold as they got into character. They became touchstones for their roles.
It was the brainchild of Dede Ayite, who has earned two 2021 Tony Award costume design nominations. Even if few sitting in the audience knew about the dog tags or what they said, it was her gift to the actors, her attempt to deepen the experience.
“Stuff like that brings me joy. I don’t need the audience to know that,” said Ayite. “It’s building up of those layers that adds even more texture to a piece.”
Showing her versatility, Ayite also is nominated for designing the costumes for “Slave Play,” Jeremy O. Harris’ bracing work about an antebellum fantasy therapy workshop. If “A Soldier’s Play” was regimented and historically accurate, “Slave Play” is fantasy and fetishism.
“I love the way clothes make me feel. I love the stories you can tell through clothing,” said Ayite, who noted that on this interview day her red sweater had shifted her demeanor. “That’s the power and the beauty of what clothes can do. I want to be able to tap into that.”
For “A Soldier’s Play,” which explores racism within a Black U.S. Army unit, Ayite created special padding in the elbows and knees for actor David Alan Grier, who was frequently pummeled onstage. The soldiers’ boots had to look broken in so she handed them out at the beginning of rehearsals.
For “Slave Play,” Ayite put a leather dominatrix outfit under a hoop skirt for one character and mixed contemporary items — like Calvin Klein underwear — with Civil War-era pieces to make the viewer question what they were seeing.
“There is a sort of home-grown quality to it. The characters have sort of like put their own spin on each of these costumes,” said “Slave Play” director Robert O’Hara. “I think that people watching the show will say, ‘Wait a minute. That looks out of time with the time period.’ So there are winks in the costumes throughout.”
Ayite said she’s always been curious about what makes humans tick, and she had one of the more astounding double majors of anyone on Broadway — theater and behavioral neuroscience. She excelled at both, but at some point had to pick career paths.
“I needed to choose the thing that brought me the most joy and the thing that sort of kept my heart intact and my spirit intact. And that was art,” she said. “I just kept saying yes to the thing that spoke to my heart. And it’s brought me here today. And for that I’m grateful.”
She has a master’s in design from the Yale School of Drama and teaches at Harvard University. Ayite said she likes the collaborative nature of theater, and her art is a “soul calling.”
“There’s nothing like watching an audience experience the world you helped to create and to see them moved,” she said. “I don’t need to run up there and say, ‘Hey, look at me,’ because I see that, I see the effect.”
Her other Broadway credits include “American Son” and “Children of a Lesser God.” Her work has been seen at Steppenwolf, La Jolla Playhouse, Berkeley Repertory, Baltimore Center Stage, Arena Stage and Cleveland Playhouse.
Ayite learned she had earned two Tony nominations last fall while at the dentist, who was encouraging. “He said, ‘You know what? I feel good about this. I think it’s going to be a good day’” she said he told her. She was still processing the first text message of a nomination when a second arrived with more good news.
“It is it is a huge honor to think that people who see theater and people who appreciate theater are seeing my work and they’re recognizing the effort that goes into it,” she said.
The pandemic put on hold two plays she also worked on — revivals of “How I Learned to Drive” and ”American Buffalo.” Both sets of costumes are in storage, awaiting the return of live theater. But when it does, Ayite is ready to tweak and enhance.
“I definitely would like to look at the costumes again, acknowledge what we’ve done so far, but then also think of them through the lens of what we’ve all gone through in the last year and a half,” she said. “We’re all different today.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits