Dede Ayite

Tony-nominated Dede Ayite '07 sees her job as costume designer as taking the audience on a journey that enhances their experience.

Dede Ayite ’07 Uses What She Learned in Neuroscience at Lehigh to Design Costumes for Broadway. She Has Two 2020 Award Nominations.

Ayite followed her heart to a career in the arts. She received Tony nominations in 2020 for Best Costume Design of a Play for A Soldier’s Play and Slave Play.

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Costume designer Dede Ayite ’07 distinctly recalls where she was the day in October when the 2020 Tony Award nominations were announced: at her dentist in Manhattan. 

“I told my dentist that the Tony nominations are coming out, but I’m not sure if I’m more nervous about the nominations or being in your chair right now,” Ayite says. As she was leaving, her phone started buzzing with text messages, congratulating her on two nominations for Best Costume Design of a Play for A Soldier’s Play and Slave Play.

With 12 nominations, Slave Play became the most Tony-nominated play in Broadway history. Delayed because of the pandemic, the date for the Tony Awards show has yet to be announced.

Dede Ayite

Dede Ayite '07 at a design presentation for "Jesus Hopped the A Train" at the Signature Theatre in New York City.

Ayite’s nominations are just the latest evidence that she’s at the top of her game. Her Broadway credits include Children of a Lesser God and American Son. Her work has appeared at Lincoln Center Theater, off-Broadway and in regional theaters around the country, as well as Netflix and Comedy Central. She’s also a part-time lecturer at Harvard University. 

“Getting nominated isn’t the end of the road but it is a helpful recognition to urge me to keep moving forward, to keep following my heart to what speaks to my soul,” says Ayite (pronounced “ah-yee-tay”) in a Zoom interview from her Brooklyn apartment.  

She sees her job of costume designer as taking the audience on a journey that enhances their experience, as she did with Slave Play

“If I were to go see a show entitled Slave Play, I’m sure I’d be walking in with a few assumptions,” she says. “As a production, our job was to lean into that satire a little bit and as a costume designer to set it up so people were taken on a journey that they were not expecting.” 

Even with deciding to pursue design as opposed to neuroscience—and I didn’t know it at the time—but in hindsight I was choosing to give birth to something that was the best within me, I was choosing to follow my heart.

Dede Ayite '07

A native of Ghana, Ayite moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, to live with her mom during high school. She loved biology but also wanted to study the arts and chose Lehigh University where she could do both, majoring in theater and behavioral neuroscience. 

In her theater studies, Ayite gravitated to Lehigh’s scene shop, where she helped design and build sets for such productions as The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre and The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Her work-study job included setting up for shows at Zoellner Arts Center, working in the costume shop and building scenery. In Kashi Johnson’s acting class, she performed a monologue from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange. 

“That was the beauty of the theatre program: I had my hands in everything,” Ayite says. “There were people who inspired me and who saw something in me that I hadn’t really seen for myself.” 

By junior year, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, though she says what she learned in neuroscience now helps her in working with actors and designing 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,” she says. “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.” 

After graduating, she spent a year in an apprenticeship at Lehigh, managing the scene shop, and then apprenticed at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico before getting her master of fine arts degree in design at the Yale School of Drama.

In her work, Ayite seeks to dispel the notion that the Black experience is monolithic. She has felt the sting of racism within the theater world but believes dwelling on such episodes would be counterproductive. 

“If I’m holding onto that—what do they say—it’s like me drinking poison and expecting the other person to suffer. I learn from them and I push forward,” she says. “I’m hopeful, and I choose to work with people who are interested in creating change.”

To that end, Ayite is active in Design Action, a project started last summer by veteran designers who want to find ways to help up-and-coming designers of color gain opportunities while reducing the prejudice they face. 

Dede Ayite accepts award

Dede Ayite '07 accepts the Outstanding Costume Design Award at the 33rd annual Lucille Lortel Awards in 2018.

“Essentially it’s creating equity in the work space, in the theater,” Ayite says.  “I recognize I’m where I am because another Black person saw me and decided to give me a shot. We can advocate for people who have not been seen because they haven’t had the chance or opportunity.” 

Meanwhile, she counts among her own biggest boosters two of her best friends from Lehigh:  Lola Ademosu ’06 and Danielle Brock ’06. Both come to her shows and support her mightily as she strives to live by a credo from author Marianne Williamson: “The purpose of our lives is to give birth to the best that is within us.” 

Ayite explains: “Even with deciding to pursue design as opposed to neuroscience—and I didn’t know it at the time—but in hindsight I was choosing to give birth to something that was the best within me, I was choosing to follow my heart. And I’m grateful that I’m here today because of that.”

Story by Margie Peterson

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