Toni-Leslie James. Photograph by Terry Brown.

Theater professor honored with Tony nomination

Toni-Leslie James recognized for her costume design on August Wilson’s “Jitney”

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Toni-Leslie James didn’t cry 25 years ago when she received her first Tony Awards nomination. She did today, however, when she received her second.

James, associate professor and director of costume design in the Department of Theatre in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, walked into the theater department this afternoon as a newly minted Tony nominee for Best Costume Design in a Play for her work on “Jitney,” the critically praised revival of the August Wilson play. She immediately encountered such an onrush of congratulations and genuine elation from her colleagues and students that she broke into tears. She couldn’t help herself. They seemed about as happy about her honor as she was.

“I’m so lucky to work with the people I work with,” James said. “The kids are so excited. We’re basically having a lovefest over here.”

James knew she might be a contender for Tony recognition this year, but she debated whether to monitor the announcement of the nominees this morning. After facing technical problems with the livestream, she retreated to the kitchen to drink coffee and feed her dog. That’s where she was when her cell phone, which she had left on the dining room table, erupted in a rapid succession of frantic dings, as if it had suddenly become possessed. James understood immediately what that meant and started to scream, letting loose all of her anxiety and exhilaration at once. Her dog, she noted, did not lift its head from the bowl.

<br>Photo by Joan Marcus.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

“It feels like a complete shock,” James said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am right now.”

“Jitney” received a total of six Tony nominations, including a nod for Best Revival of a Play. The play proved to be a particularly personal work for James. “Jitney” takes place in 1977 in a Pittsburgh gypsy cab station, centering on a group of men who try to make a living driving unlicensed cabs, which are also known as jitneys. “Jitney” was the only one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle that had never previously been staged on Broadway. James is from outside of Pittsburgh, and she was 20 years old at the time the play is set. She knew the era and the setting instinctively. In fact, the way she dressed the characters was often based on real people she knew growing up.

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“I knew these people so well already that I think it translated to the costumes,” James said. “I didn’t have to make anything up. It was just right there for me.”

The news of the Tony nomination comes less than a week after James learned that she had received nominations in two different categories for the 2017 Drama Desk Awards, which honor the best in theater among productions that are staged on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. James said she puts these awards on the same level as the Tonys. In addition to a nomination for Outstanding Costume Design for a Play for “Jitney,” she was also recognized with a nomination for Outstanding Costume Design for a Musical for “Come From Away,” which is set in a small Newfoundland town in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Come From Away” was among the Tony nominees announced today for Best Musical.

James said she feels fortunate to have worked on two such stellar productions on Broadway at once.

“It’s been a confluence of the right people coming together at the right time,” said James, whose previous Tony nomination came for her work on “Jelly’s Last Jam” in 1992.

For James, these recent honors feel especially rewarding because many former students worked with her on both productions. Her former students on “Jitney” included Michael Magaraci (assistant costume designer) and Gloria Kim (costume illustrator), and on “Come From Away,” the staff included alumni Magaraci, Kim,  Nicky Tobolski (associate designer), Matt Armentrout (wig and hair supervisor) and current M.F.A. student Hannah Chalman (costume production assistant). 

James said when she arrived at VCU to teach about a decade ago she fully expected her theater career to slow down. Instead, it has exploded.

“Come From Away.” 
<br>Photo by Matthew Murphy.
“Come From Away.”
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“I’m a completely different designer because I teach,” James said. “My students have made me a better designer in every aspect of the work.”

James has been nominated for countless awards during her career. She doesn’t always make it to the ceremony. There’s no risk of that for the Tonys, which will be held on June 11 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

“There’s no way I’m going to miss that,” she said.


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