DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
In a stage production, there are many roles that have to work together perfectly at once for showtime. The actors have to embody their characters; the lighting and sound must run smoothly; the director is at the helm of the ship steering it forward.
One aspect of a show that can be understated, and perhaps overlooked, is costume design.
Erin Barnett, Chautauqua Theater Company’s costume fellow, is the only fellow this year, and she is tasked with creating all of the costumes for CTC’s productions this season, including Blood at the Root, which will be continuing its run at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 14 in the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
Based on the real-life events of the Jena Six case in Louisiana in 2006, the show follows a fictitious high school and its students having to come to terms with the racial hierarchy that is skewed toward its white students.
After some of the Black students try to sit under a tree that is usually occupied by white students, tensions rise as hot as the temperature of a Louisiana summer.
A fight breaks out, leaving one of the Black students, De’Andre, charged with attempted murder.
Barnett designed D’Andre’s costume during his imprisonment, a standard orange prison jumpsuit with a faded American flag overtop.
The show has been very special to Barnett and has an elevated meaning after 2020.
“I think for a lot of people, including myself, this is the first in-person show that we’ve done in over a year,” Barnett said. “So I think the experience of being in an audience with people and watching this show specifically was really special.”
While the show is based on the events that happened in 2006, the show is set in the present day. Alongside the show’s director, CTC Associate Artistic Director Stori Ayers, Barnett wanted the costumes to reflect what high school students in 2021 are wearing.
Barnett worked closely with Ayers on De’Andre’s jumpsuit costume to execute the political statement that they were trying to achieve.
“(Stori wanted to) do something that is sort of a distortion of the American flag, in some way, to say something,” Barnett said. “I did some different sketches of different ideas and came to the orange jumpsuit with the flag imagery faded out of it. What we were really looking to emphasize with that look is something that the play itself emphasizes, which is the racial inequity in the American justice system.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the juvenile justice system confines Black youth at over four times the rate of white youth. For the lowest-level offenses, Black and Indigenous youth are confined at rates over three times the rate of white youth.
Barnett and Ayers wanted to do more than just a traditional orange jumpsuit to illustrate this point.
“This racial inequity that we see (in the jumpsuit) is sort of inherent to this bridge (between the) prison system to the justice system and to America,” Barnett said.