‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem’: Black and Beautiful by Design

Demeatria Boccella weaves cultural touchstones into costumes for Pittsburgh Public’s all-Black production

By Sharon Eberson

This enchanting moment has been 20 years in the making for Demeatria Boccella

The “producer and curator of style, culture and design,” as she is described on her company website, founded Pittsburgh’s annual fashionAFRICANA, events, created to explore Black beauty, culture and history through fashion and art. 

All that has come before factors into Boccella creating the costume designs for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem

The production is directed by Justin Emeka, whose adaptation infuses Shakespeare’s lush comedic fantasy with Black culture and African spiritual traditions, “in an urban dreamscape influenced by the art, music and the legacy of Harlem” – a description was right in Boccella’s wheelhouse.

“I founded fashionAFRICANA in 2001 as a street fashion show, and I’ve always wanted that show to engage all people to come together to celebrate the African diaspora, through design, dance and music,” Boccella said. “And now,  20 years later, to have this opportunity …” 

She pauses, and reflects that she never anticipated that what she had been doing all along would lead to this opportunity. 

“I didn’t think about it this way at the time, but I was storytelling through design, and the presentation of what we did was always theatrical,” she said.

Boccella, in 2019, collaborated with the Heinz History Center to create the first museum showcase of the work of Ruth E. Carter, who made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for costume design.

Boccella also had a relationship with Pittsburgh Public Theater as the managing director of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, and through programs to enhance the experience of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, a play that explores Black girl beauty. 



Portia plays both Hippolyta and Titania in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Scenic design is by Anka Lupes.
(Production images by Michael Henninger)


When the request came from artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski about creating costumes for the large-cast play, with its “mythical story in a magical world of mischievous fairies, confused lovers and an enchanted forest,” Boccella jumped at the chance. 

Reading the script, it was easy for her to visualize how her sense of style and exploration of Black culture were in harmony with Emeka’s modern take on Shakespeare.

Working with associate designer Damian E. Dominguez and the Public’s costume shop, Boccella started her process for each character by creating “mood boards,” using images from her shows over 20 years, red-carpet-celebrities, catalogs and others. 

For example, she points to Midsummer’s  “mechanicals” – the skilled manual laborers and amateur actors who come together to put on the play within the play. 

“They’re workers, so I’ve put them in jumpsuits. But what I’ve tried to do is infuse elements that are indigenous or common within our culture, with Black men, especially in New York.”

At the opposite end from the work-a-day looks is Titania, the strong-willed queen of the fairies who stands up to her husband, the powerful Oberon. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, is a character for strength and vulnerability – she is bound for a marriage as a war prize, and is none too pleased about it.

“They’re all so different,” Boccella was saying about approaching each character. “For Titania, I thought, I can have a lot of fun with her, and really dramatize her look. Hippolyta is a little bit more on the conservative side, but I still wanted her to be fabulous as well, and you know,” she says with a laugh,  “and then, how can we make those transitions with the same character.”

The Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem
are dressed to reflect urban street wear.

As you may already know, life in the enchanted forest, change is going to come, what with mischief-maker Puck, mismatched lovers and muleish behavior at play. In the real world, there are the constraints of budget and time, and the collaborative process –  what colors work best with the scenic and lighting design, for example.

Headdresses and braids became a big part of tying the looks together of various characters.

“Hair and braids are a big part of this,” said Boccellla,  a stately fashionista who is well-known for her style and her shaved head. 

That is, until recently. 

“Once I saw this set design and we started having these conversations, I just started growing my hair, and I have not had hair in decades! So I now have braids down to my butt just for this production, and then I’m gonna shave it all.”

Hair is part of her own story, and perhaps the most personal touch Boccella has woven into her designs for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem.

“Just talking about braids and hair … it’s just, I’m enjoying it. I’m really enjoying it,” said Boccella, a Hazelwood native.

“I grew up with a really low self-esteem,” she continued. “ I did not see people who look like me doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in fashion, I wanted to model, but I didn’t think I could do it because I didn’t fit that European standard. So my work is rooted in creating positive images of people of African descent doing just that,, so that our young people can see reflections of themselves.”

The all-Black cast wearing Boccella’s designs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem features familiar and new-to-Pittsburgh actors. Portia, the one-name Broadway veteran who was a replacement Calpurnia in Aaron Sorkin‘s To Kill A Mockingbird and Florin in Roundabout Theatre’s The Rose Tattoo, doubles as Hippolyta and Titania.

The cast also features June Alvilda Almonte as Helena, Andre G. Brown as Bottom, Chrisala M. Brown as Mustard Seed, E. Mani Cadet as Egeus and Quince, Amara Granderson as Lysandra, Keith Lee Grant as Theseus and Oberon, Harry J. Hawkins IV as Flute, Akinlana Lowman as African Boy, Richard McBride as Starveling, Jaris Owens as Puck, Brenden Peifer as Demetrius, Kelsey Robinson as Pease Blossom, Saige Smith as Hermia, Brian Starks as Snug, Marshall Weir Mabry IV as Snout, and Calina Womack as Cobweb.

A handful of the cast members came courtesy of a nationwide search announced in August, when the Public said it was “encouraging audition videos from Black and Brown performers with the ability to embrace Shakespeare’s language. as well as a passion to celebrate Black culture.”

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through Feb. 19. Tickets and details: https://ppt.org/production/78797/a-midsummer-nights-dream-in-harlem or call 412-316-1600. Tickets are available (excluding Friday and Saturday evenings) for full-time students or anyone 26 or younger for $16.50 by using the code HOTTIX and with a valid ID at time of purchase.

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