Nikiya Mathis Says It's Time for a Permanent Hair Design Tony Award | Playbill

Tony Awards Nikiya Mathis Says It's Time for a Permanent Hair Design Tony Award

She's receiving a Special Tony Award and she says that show stylists need to learn how to work with Black hair.

Nikiya Mathis Heather Gershonowitz

Broadway hair and wig designer Nikiya Mathis is being honored at the 2024 Tony Awards with a Special Tony Award, in recognition of her truly jaw-dropping work on Best Play nominee Jaja’s African Hair Braiding. Since making her Broadway debut in 2021 with Chicken & Biscuits, Mathis has quickly become one of Broadway's favorite hair and wig designers, with a specialty for working with actors of color.

Mathis, who trained as an actor and also performs, has been vocal about how she got into the world of theatrical hair: it came out of horror stories she experienced and heard from friends about working as a Black actor. In a field still predominately white, there often isn't an understanding of how to work with Black hair, whether it's on display from the actor's head or underneath a wig.

But none of that is an issue for Mathis, whose hair artistry was on particular display in Jaja's African Hair Braiding, which (as the title tells you) takes place in a hair braiding salon in Harlem. Not only did Mathis get to flex her design muscles working on some extravagant hair pieces filled with braids and poofs, she even developed looks that could be built in stages, allowing the play to depict the process of creating braided hair over many hours.

And while it's not surprising that the particular hair achievement garnered attention from the Tony Awards, the honor has renewed a conversation in the theatre industry about the need for a permanent Tony Award category recognizing hair and wig design (currently, hair design is grouped in with costume design).

Playbill caught up with Mathis—currently represented on Broadway with Roundabout Theatre Company's Home and soon to be Off-Broadway with Cats: "The Jellicle Ball" at Perelman Performing Arts Center—over the phone to talk about receiving her special Tony Award, the all too often hidden hair struggles facing Black actors on stage and film, and the need for a hair Tony Award category.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kalyne Coleman and Maechi Aharanwa in Jaja’s African Hair Braiding Matthew Murphy

What was it like hearing you won a Special Tony Award?
Nikiya Mathis: It felt like the impossible happened. It was crazy and surreal, grateful, proud. In terms of thinking about the range of emotions I’ve had in navigating hair in the theatre—it can be fantastic, and there are also times that it is really hard and really rough. I had a particularly challenging show last year, and then Jaja’s came and was just a complete 180, restored my faith. To then be awarded for that is just amazing.

I’ve noticed that it’s renewed conversations about creating a permanent category for hair and wig design, including a petition. Where does that land for you as you’re winning this special award?
There have been shows that I’ve worked on that I’ve been really proud of what I did, and then the costume designer gets a nomination in part because of my work. Hair and wig designers have been working for years with little to no recognition. It feels like it’s because people assess it as maybe a feminine design element. The patriarchy of this country trickles down to even our artform. People don’t always have an understanding of hair and the craftmanship behind what we’re building and executing. Even in terms of the budgets we get for wigs, we’re always the last on the list. But it’s so important. If a character is not supported by the hair and the costume design, then it doesn’t support the play. I’m grateful for this honor, but I feel like we’re in a real place where the category is needed. The work we do is so intricate and so delicate and takes so many hours. It’s due to be honored.

You’ve been very open that you got into this after hearing a lot of horror stories from fellow actors of color regarding hair and wigs on productions. Can you speak to that?
My first show [as an actor] out of grad school was at a major regional theatre. The cast was five Black women, and no one had the skillset to braid our hair. It started from there. I would have friends reach out and say, "Listen, the costume designer wants me to use my real hair because they saw my hair like that at the audition." For so long, Black women have done so much extra work because they didn’t have anyone to advocate for them. You’re hired as an actor, and then have to do job of a wig or hair designer, because the theatres don’t want to actually put forth the money to pay for it. What happens is Black actresses go home and stay up hours at a time and do their own hair, and make sure that they don’t look foolish onstage. But that really is someone else’s job!

And honestly, using natural hair just isn’t practical in a lot of situations for Black actors. People with silkier hair might be used to washing their hair every day, but that’s not a thing for Black people. Our hair doesn’t really retain moisture in the same way that silkier textures do. When Black people say, "This is a wash day for me," they mean an entire day. All day. Sometimes it’s two days, because then they’re washing, conditioning, detangling. All of that takes hours. And then they sometimes have to twist set their hair, or braids, and that has to dry overnight, and then they’re taking it out in the morning. What they do over two days knowing that audition is coming up, there’s no way they can really maintain that.

And so now I get Black actors that reach out to me asking me to create a wig that they pay for themselves. I have a friend who is a series regular on a TV show that reached out to me about building a wig that she was going to pay for because she was getting pushback about her hair. My experience on my first professional show was in 2008. Now it’s 2024, and we’re still dealing with the same lack of care for actors of color.

Even further back than 2008, I’m immediately thinking about how Actors’ Equity was founded in 1913, in no small part because of how often actors were then being expected to cover their own hair and costume expenses. That’s more than 100 years later and Black actors still lack the protection that white actors have had for a century.
I really appreciate you saying that, because I think what we have experienced over the years is that we’re in a house that hasn’t been built for us specifically. 

There are things that Actors’ Equity has tried to make provisions for, but hair has been such a major challenge for actors of color over the years and no one would listen. There have been so many shows where there wouldn’t be a hair person at all. Part of it is this issue with people not believing Black women, or thinking enough of Black women to listen to them and provide the care they need—particularly without labeling them a diva. That’s something I was working with on that difficult show last year. One of the leads was a Black woman, and she noticed that when she would walk into the hair room, they would help to do the pin curls and the wig prep of the white women, but not her. She had to go to stage management and company management to ask, and it was a big deal. The supervisor at the time said that she was becoming difficult—just for asking for equal treatment! What it really was is that they didn’t know how do it and didn’t want to do it. 

After weeks of back and forth, they allowed her to have someone to do her hair, but it shouldn’t have taken all of that.

Nikiya Mathis Heather Gershonowitz

It must be so demeaning to be labeled as difficult when you’re asking for someone to be able to do their job. Can you imagine someone working in theatrical hair and saying they don’t know how to do women’s hair?
Exactly! I think when people get these jobs, sometimes they are afraid they’re going to say they don’t know how to do something and they’re not going to be able to keep progressing their career. Maybe if we actually cultivated spaces where all people could learn on the job, then people wouldn’t just lie or diminish and make other people feel bad.

What would you say to people in the theatre hair industry who aren’t Black? Is it their duty to go out and learn how to do Black actors’ hair, or should productions just be hiring wig designers of color?
I think it’s all our responsibility to go out and learn. You never know who’s going to be coming into your chair. I hear oftentimes stylists say things like, "Oh, they didn’t teach me natural hairstyling in cosmetology school." The truth of the matter is there’s a lot they don’t teach in cosmetology school. You can’t rely on that, particularly years after being out of it, to be your only teacher. There are natural hair classes. There are braiding classes, right here in New York City. If you know someone that does natural hair, you could pay them to give you a crash course that you can take home and continue to learn, so that at least you know how to braid or cornrow natural hair, and know which products to use. At some point I just wonder if they care enough about all actors to want to be able to care and support for them.

On the other hand, if you’re someone that’s like, "Listen, I don’t know how to do it. But I’m gonna do everything I can to support you and make sure you have the support you need." I’m fine with that, too!

In terms of hiring hairstylists of color, that’s very important. At the end of the day, we need equity in hiring, period. It’s not that every designer of color is amazing with styling natural, textured hair, but you want to have visibility and representation.

What would you say is the number one thing audiences tend to not realize about hair on Broadway?
I wonder if people know how wigs are made, how they are crafted by hand, starting from a foundation of lace (matched to the actors’ complexion) and putting hair in one hair at a time. And that wigs are not necessarily used to change an actors’ hair. Even if your hair is not kinky or curly, sometimes you wake up and have a bad hair day. Wigs eliminate bad hair days.

The work you’ve done on all of your shows has been fantastic, but it must be so nice to receive this honor for this play, that is itself such a loving tribute to hair culture in the Black community.
It was a dream job. The fact that I’ve done this at this point in my career, I feel like I can retire. I don’t know what else I would do. I got to live in my culture, and the culture of my ancestors.

Well, don’t retire because we want more!
Oh, OK Thank you!

Check Out Photos of Broadway's Jaja’s African Hair Braiding

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