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Ghanaian-born costume designer Dede Ayite wins historic Tony Award

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 18, 2024 4:20 PM EDT

Dede Ayite has made history by becoming the first Black woman to win the Tony for Best Costume Design of a Play during the 77th Annual Tony Awards. The Ghanaian-born designer’s award came from her work on the Broadway production “Jaja’s African Hair Braiding,” written by Jocelyn Bioh. The show, which debuted on Broadway in October 2023 is set in a bustling Harlem salon where West African immigrant hair braiders create masterpiece hairstyles for local women. It explores the uncertainties that they confront being an outsider in a place they call home.k

“People like me that are just starting out and aren’t sure and are fearful and just don’t know what it’s going to take, and you don’t know how to find that step to take you forward, so I’m just hopeful that this moment says, ‘Just keep at it.’ You know, tell the stories that matter to you, tell the story that you find value in, and the moment will meet you. That’s what’s happening for me right now,” Ayite said.

In addition to the Tony for Best Costume Design of a Play, Ayite was nominated for Best Costume Design of a Musical for “Hell’s Kitchen” and Best Costume Design of a Play for “Appropriate.” She had previously been nominated for  “Slave Play” and “A Soldier’s Play.” In her acceptance speech, Ayite thanked her family and collaborators for their support. She also thanked Bioh for writing the piece and the costume shops and makers, “without them, I would not be here and the show would not look as amazing as it does.”

Ayite has forged a culture of excellence and winning. She has been nominated for three Drama Desk Awards, won a special Drama Desk Award, and a TDF/Kitty Leech Young Master Award. She has also received Obie, Lucille Lortel, Helen Hayes, Theatre Bay Area, and Jeff awards. Her costume designs have been featured in nearly a dozen productions on Broadway Off-Broadway productions in nationally renowned venues such as the Atlantic Theater Company, Signature Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, and Lincoln Center Theater. Her work in television has appeared on Netflix, Comedy Central, and FOX.

During high school, Ayite moved from Ghana to Silver Spring, Maryland to live with her mother. She attended Lehigh University where she majored in theater and behavioral neuroscience. Although she loved biology, Ayite knew by senior year that she wanted to pursue a career in the arts. Her lessons in neuroscience now help her work with actors and design their costumes.

“When you’re a neuroscience major, you’re studying behaviors, you’re studying psychology, getting a window into understanding what makes us as human beings react certain ways, how potentially past traumas or childhood developments affect the way we are as adults. So I pull that into my world as a costume designer especially because I’m dealing with actors in moments of extreme vulnerability. It also helps me in taking a character that’s on a page and translating that into a design that a human being is going to wear,” Ayite said about how neuroscience impacts her costume designs.

Ayite earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the Yale School of Drama. She is a part-time lecturer at Harvard University and an adjunct professor in the Fordham Theatre program.