When Jitney costume designer Toni-Leslie James calls, it's from her commute. She’s not calling from a car service; she’s on Amtrak from Virginia to New York City, traveling between her gig as the head of design of the theatre department at Virginia Commonwealth University and tech rehearsal for her second show of the Broadway season, Come From Away.
Despite living in New York City and Richmond, James’ hometown just outside Pittsburgh served her best as she designed Manhattan Theatre Club’s rave-reviewed production of Jitney. “Pittsburgh was a steel mill town,” says James. “My father worked in steel for 46 years at the Clairton, Pennsylvania plant.” Her childhood connections to the characters in August Wilson’s play don’t stop there. “My mother was the Grand Worthy Counsellor of the state of Pennsylvania’s Court of Colanthe [a fraternal benefit society], and they owned an old Victorian mansion,” explains James. “They fought the city tooth and nail to hold onto this property … and one of the ways they kept Colanthe Hall alive was that they rented to a Jitney company in their basement. I spent my childhood in the ’60s—almost every weekend—in Colanthe Hall and playing with the kids of some of the Jitney drivers. I knew exactly what this was.”
Still, the last of Wilson’s American Century Cycle to make it to the Broadway stage, Jitney spotlights the steel town circa 1977. “I was Rena’s age in 1977,” says James, referring to Jitney’s only female character. She even worked for U.S. Steel during the summer of 1976. “So many of the characters in Jitney were completely recognizable. My father’s best friend was a trustee in the church. Dressed just like Fielding.” As James created the revolving world of Jitney and its car service depot, she was “conjuring people I knew.”
When the lights rise on the Samuel J. Friedman stage, the haze of the ’70s spills into the audience, and that’s—at least in part—due to James’ commitment to authenticity in detail. The men’s shirt collars, the two-inch belt loops, the high waists, and the flared-just-enough pants infuse a precision of the 1970s James had tuned to. And yet, these details spoke to the individual characters who donned them onstage. “You get little touches to who they really are without going overboard,” says James. “When you establish a character, you have to create a history. The first time that the audience sees that character, it is so important that they know immediately who that character is, or you’ve just lost them; you don’t have any place else to go.”
With illustrations by Gloria Kim, James walks us through the first looks and design sketches that built the roster of Jitney’s unforgettable drivers.
Why You Can’t Take Your Eyes Off of Jitney’s Costumes
Jitney plays through March 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.