Why No Tony Awards For Hair, Wig & Makeup? Designers Campaign For Change

Next month, when the 2024 Tony Awards for excellence in Broadway theater are handed out, hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis will be honored with a Special Tony for her work on the acclaimed play Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, Jocelyn Bioh’s seriocomic celebration of West African immigrant hair braiders in Harlem who create masterpieces atop the heads of the neighborhood woman.

Anyone who saw Mathis’ marvelous wig creations will understand immediately why she is one of three recipients this year of Special Tony Awards, non-competitive honors bestowed by Tony organizers for productions, artists and organizations who do not fall into any of the competitive categories.

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But what many in the theater community don’t understand is why Mathis or any of her design colleagues in wig, hair and makeup can’t simply compete in a category devoted to their artistry and work. And some of those designers, along with many other theater workers standing in solidarity, are working to fix what they see as a longstanding snub.

A petition calling on the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League to recognize the contributions of wig and hair and makeup designers by introducing dedicated Tony categories for those departments has gotten more than 2,600 signatures in recent weeks, about 95% of its goal. At the end of the month, the “It Is About Time” drive organizers, launched and led by Broadway hair & wig and makeup designer J. Jared Janas, hope to formally present the petition to the League and the Wing, with a goal to introduce the new award categories as early as next year.

Logo for ‘It Is About Time’ campaign
Logo for ‘It Is About Time’ campaign

“Our petition,” Janas said, “seeks to ensure that the Tony Awards recognize the exceptional artistry and innovation of wig & hair designers and makeup designers, who shape the visual identities of characters on stage. It is about time our contributions are celebrated and honored on Broadway’s biggest stage.”

The petition organizers assert that wig, hair, makeup and costume designing have traditionally been considered “pink collar” jobs filled disproportionately by women. As such, the jobs have been undervalued. “This petition seeks to dispel any lingering notions of this narrative and emphasize the significant impact made by these departments,” campaign organizers said in a statement.

In a statement to Deadline, Mathis, who also has a busy acting career that includes a recurring role on the Starz drama Power Book III: Raising Kanan, addressed the importance of Tony recognition and its significance not only for the wig and hair designers but for all theater artists of color.

“I started my journey in this profession because there was a need for actors of color to receive adequate haircare and support in our industry,” she said. “From the beginning, my passion for crafting intricate styles to my passion for transformation, every wig I design tells a story of dedication, innovation, and every strand is meticulously woven and the creativity takes shape. I am grateful that the Broadway League is honoring me with the first special Tony Award for my work on Jaja’s African Hair Braiding and most importantly shining a light on underrepresented artists that tell a story not through words but through creative hair and wig design. I have designed for and witnessed the needs of actors of all nationalities. We, as artisans, have to continue to push forward and advance the achievements of our underrepresented communities in theater.”

<em>Jaja’s African Hair Braiding</em> on Broadway: Lakisha May and, in mirror, Nana Mensah <br>
Jaja’s African Hair Braiding on Broadway: Lakisha May and, in mirror, Nana Mensah

A sampling of those who stand in solidarity – and have signed the petition – are such Broadway luminaries as scenic designers Beowulf Boritt and Dane Laffrey; directors Lear deBessonet, Casey Nicholaw, actors J. Harrison Ghee, Joe Locke, Stephanie J. Block and Donna Murphy, among many others.

“This category is an absolute must,” wrote Block, whose Tony-winning performance in The Cher Show would be difficult to imagine without convincing recreations of Cher’s renowned coiffeurs. “Wig/Hair/Makeup are essential to character development and the overall clarity and spectacle of storytelling, whether the design be realistic, fantastical or otherwise. These designers should be recognized for their artistry, vision, time and collaboration.”

Traditionally, designs for wig & hair and makeup, colloquially shortened to WHAM, have been considered by Tony administration as a part of the Best Costume Design category, an approach that had been long held, but now long abandoned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in handing out Oscars. In 1981, the Academy created a competitive category for Best Makeup, and in 1993 expanded the category to Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

<br>‘Cabaret’ Costumer Designer Tom Scutt has been nominated for a Best Costume Design/Musical Tony, while Sam Cox’s hair & wig design, in keeping with Tony custom, is not specifically named

‘Cabaret’ Costumer Designer Tom Scutt has been nominated for a Best Costume Design/Musical Tony, while Sam Cox’s hair & wig design, in keeping with Tony custom, is not specifically named

In a statement to Deadline, a spokesman for Tony Award Productions said, “We value and recognize the contributions of all the individuals that bring Broadway shows to life on stage and are constantly considering where there are opportunities for evolution with our official categories. While we can’t currently speak to any upcoming changes to official categories, Special Tony Awards and Tony Honors allow us the opportunity each year to honor additional outstanding contributions from those playing a variety of significant roles in a show’s production.”

But Janas, whose Broadway WHAM credits include current or recent productions of Purlie Victorious, Mary Jane, Prayer for the French Republic, Sweeney Todd, Kimberly Akimbo and & Juliet (the latter a Tony nominee for Paloma Young’s costume design), refers to the combining of WHAM designers with costume designers as a relic from “olden times.”

“They consider us a ‘sub-design’ category,” Janas told Deadline. “But recently, I personally have been hired directly by the director, just like the costume designer is. And while I have always worked closely with the costume designers, I am always given autonomy over my designs, and I have my own budget and fee.

“Change isn’t easy for many people,” he continued. “They like the status quo. But so many things are changing in our industry, and we need to embrace change. Aren’t we, as theater makers, agents of change? Some people are afraid that they will have to pay designers more money after winning a Tony. I’m not certain if that’s true. But is that so terrible? I mean, how much are we talking about? I can’t imagine it really affects the bottom line that much.”

Melanie La Barrie and Lorna Courtney in ‘& Juliet’
Melanie La Barrie and Lorna Courtney in ‘& Juliet’

Janas lauds the Special Tony for Mathis’ work on Jaja as a “well-deserved” step in the right direction that emphasizes “the need for permanent, competitive categories. Our work is deserving of the same level of recognition other departments get.” Janas, who wrote the text of the petition last November and began collecting signatures April 26 prior to the announcement of Mathis’ Special Tony on May 2, says that while her honor didn’t inspire the petition, “it certainly gives us a sign that The Wing clearly understands what good hair and wigs are.”

Unfortunately for signers of the petition, a Special Tony doesn’t necessarily serve as a harbinger. Although Jaja‘s Mathis is the first hair/wig designer honored for a single show, Paul Huntley, the famously inventive and influential wig and hair designer for Cats, The Elephant Man, The Producers, Hairspray, Amadeus and A Little Night Music, received a Special Tony for his vast body of work. That was back in 2003.

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