Theater professor outfitted with third career Tony nomination for costume design

Scenes from the play "Bernhardt/Hamlet."
VCU theater alumnus Jason Butler Harner (left, acting with Janet McTeer) was among the performers to don Toni-Leslie James' Tony-nominated costumes for "Bernhardt/Hamlet." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include James winning a 2019 Drama Desk Award for Best Costume Design of a Play.

For the second time in three years and the third time in her career, Toni-Leslie James has earned a Tony Award nomination for her costume design in a Broadway play.

James, who is director of costume design in the Department of Theatre in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, was among the nominees announced for the 2019 Tony Awards on Tuesday. James was recognized for her work on the play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” which ran at the American Airlines Theatre from Aug. 31 to Nov. 18 last year. The 73rd annual Tony Awards ceremony will be broadcast by CBS from Radio City Music Hall in New York on June 9. James Corden will serve as host.

“It's always a fantastic honor to be nominated for a Tony,” James said. “Though I’ve been fortunate in my career, I never expect anything. I’m grateful to continue to have meaningful and fulfilling collaborations with the best in the industry.” 

“Bernhardt/Hamlet” stars Janet McTeer as Sarah Bernhardt, an internationally renowned theatrical performer who sets out to play the role of Hamlet in 1897. The play, written by Theresa Rebeck, also earned a Tony nomination for McTeer. James said the production offered compelling costume design challenges.

“The play takes place in 1898 and the characters required 19th-century day clothes, formalwear, rehearsal costumes for ‘Hamlet,’ and performance costumes for ‘Hamlet’ and the premiere of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’” James said. “The looks were specific to the time with 19th-century photographs of the named characters available online. All had to be created on an extremely tight budget along with a full set of understudy costumes. We built most of the women’s costumes, men’s suits, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Cyrano’ costumes. We rented costumes from VCU, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Guthrie Theater, Goodspeed Musicals, and borrowed costumes from Lincoln Center and the Public Theater to make this happen.

“We were trying to create the right silhouette and balance for late-19th-century clothing and create a visible contrast between the clothing of the period and stage costumes of the period. We succeeded in that goal and fully supported the journey of the play.”

Scenes from “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Click to view slideshow. Scenes from “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BroadwayBox called James’ costumes for the production “stunning,” saying “From the beautiful gown worn by Janet McTeer in her dressing room scenes at the top of Act II to the fantastic ‘Cyrano’ costumes at the end, her work shines.” Other critics hailed the play’s costumes as “eloquent,” “glorious” and “sumptuous.”

James said it was a thrill to work on the production.

“I jumped at the chance to work with Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the incredible director, and to create the clothing for the ‘Divine Sarah’ onstage,” James said. “Janet McTeer is a flawless actor and every moment spent in her presence was a master class on acting, grace and collaboration. I learned a great deal by watching her move in her costume during her fittings. She's extremely intelligent about the craft and her own body.” 

James was not the only member of the production with ties to the VCU theater program. Jason Butler Harner, an alumnus of the VCU theater program, was among McTeer’s top-billed co-stars, playing the role of Edmond Rostand, a playwright and one of Bernhardt’s lovers, in a performance The New York Times called “excellent.” In addition, John Kristiansen New York, the costume shop of alumnus John Kristiansen, built the costumes; alumnus Matt Armentrout made his debut as a Broadway designer on the show; alumna Gloria Young Kim served as costume illustrator; and alumnus Michael Magaraci was associate designer. 

James said the presence of so many VCU alumni adds to the reward of the Tony recognition.

“I'm eternally grateful to all for helping me achieve this nomination,” James said.

James two years ago was nominated for her work on the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” She previously received a Tony nomination for her costume design on “Jelly’s Last Jam” in 1992.

Update (June 3, 2019): On June 2, Toni-Leslie James became the first-ever black woman to win the Drama Desk Award for Best Costume Design of a Play. James won for her work on “Bernhardt/Hamlet.”

James said the Drama Desk Award, which is second in prestige only to the Tony Awards among theater plaudits in the United States, was meaningful on multiple levels. 

“It's a great honor to win, because I'm an academic and raised a family while pursuing a tough, but immensely fulfilling career,” James said. “Students need to see instructors that are continuing to work at a high level like themselves to achieve their goals and have approachable open mentors. Students also need to see more diversity in the craft and classroom presenting different paths and stories. At this time, there are still too few designers of color working on Broadway and at the major theatre companies, particularly set and lighting designers.”

James, who has worked on Broadway for 26 years, said “teaching has made me change my process to evolve into a better designer and person.” She said the collaborative nature of her work means many others had a hand in the Drama Desk nomination, including those with VCU ties who have worked with her.

“I get to take home the award, but a village of assistants, tailors, drapers, wig designers, wardrobe staff, illustrators, and other made it happen,” James said. “The fact that most of us were at VCU, and raised up by VCU, makes it all the more thrilling. I bow down to them all.”