Asa Benally: Costume Design & Heritage

by Porsche McGovern
Asa Benally
Asa Benally

Last fall, I met Asa Benally at a workshop, Decolonizing and Indigenizing on Turtle Island: Arts, Education, Community Practice, and Leadership. I was lucky enough to be paired with him for a few one-on-one exercises and was excited to get the chance to interview him.

Asa Benally was raised on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona. His grandmother, a traditional Navajo weaver and his father, a silversmith, fostered his love and appreciation for art and design. He went to on to study at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City. In 2016 he completed his M.F.A. in costume design at Yale University. His design aesthetic is derived from an interest in history and strong individuals. He lives and works in New York City. 

Credits include: Too Heavy For Your Pocket (George Street Playhouse); Skeleton Crew (Westport Country Playhouse); Father Comes Home…(Juilliard); Then They Forgot About the Rest (INTAR Theater); Cymbeline (Yale Repertory Theater); The Brobot Johnson Experience (The Bushwick Starr); Tricks the Devil Taught Me (Minetta Lane Theatre); Coriolanus and The Seagull (Yale School of Drama); Whale Song (Perseverance Theater); The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, The SecretariesRoberto ZuccoTrouble in Tahiti (Yale Cabaret); A Midsummer Night’s DreamMeasure for Measure (Frog and Peach Theater Company); The Winters Tale (HERE Arts Center); Peer Gynt, Big Love (Amherst College). http://www.asabenally.com. Instagram: @Asa_Benally_Design.

Whale Song by Cathy Tagnak Rexford at The Perseverance Theater. Director: Madeline Sayet. Scenic Design: Akiko Nishijima Rotch. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Art Rotch. Sound Design: Rory Stitt.
Whale Song by Cathy Tagnak Rexford at The Perseverance Theater. Director: Madeline Sayet. Scenic Design: Akiko Nishijima Rotch. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Art Rotch. Sound Design: Rory Stitt.

 

How has being as a person of color harmed and/or helped your career?
I don’t think anyone has ever asked me this question before. Maybe I’ve just been blissfully unaware. Theatre tends to attract people who are open, empathetic, and not outwardly judgmental. I’ve always fallen into working with good and passionate people. There’s never been anything blatant in my professional career. I experienced more subtle racism when I was young, in my undergrad. 

Designers of color tend to be pigeonholed into shows that fit their ethnicity. I’m Native American and have been a working professional for the last eighteen years. The last two years have seen more POC projects coming to me. Sometimes it feels like you get hired to be a cultural expert in the field, and your presence legitimizes the production more. For me, watching theatre companies acknowledge Native stories and voices with a seat at the table has been an interesting transition to watch. I’ve gotten to be a part of a lot of new work in recent years by Native playwrights. If you told me that five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. I never considered if being a person of color harmed my career. But now, for the first time, I’m getting to work with theatre artists who have shared cultural experiences. That’s never happened before- I’ve always been the one who’s had to fit in.

For me, I needed to go somewhere else for an education and job, after growing up in the Southwest. Coming to New York eradicated people constantly seeing me as the stereotype of the crazy, drunk Indian from the rez. In New York, it came down to my ability and talent.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket at George Street Playhouse. Director: LA Williams. Set Design: Wilson Chin. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Jason Lyons. Sound Design: Chris Lane. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson.
Too Heavy for Your Pocket at George Street Playhouse. Director: LA Williams. Set Design: Wilson Chin. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Jason Lyons. Sound Design: Chris Lane. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson.

How has your race/ethnicity influenced your career journey?|
My childhood was spent on the Navajo reservation, and people are always surprised that I’m a Native American costume designer, living in New York. In Navajo culture specifically and Indigenous culture in general, there’s a huge tradition of storytelling. I’ve taken that seemingly simple concept and reshaped it to fit in this time. I’ve always been a storyteller, and now I’m a costume designer. The rez was very isolated- the nearest grocery store is sixty miles away. There wasn’t money for fun stuff or toys, but there was a lot of space in the high desert. That was our playground, and if you wanted to have fun, you had to make it on your own. I think that’s what started making narratives out of basic objects, making our own worlds. 

My father was a silversmith, my grandmother and aunts were rugweavers, and everyone was a beader. You’re constantly surrounded by these artistic traditions. My grandmother taught me how to bead and make necklaces in her hogan- my first lesson in color theory. When I lay it out, it’s like a direct path. That’s why I’m in a creative field, in theatre, why I’m a storyteller.  

Someone was telling me stories about my grandmother on my Navajo side. I’m half Navajo and half Cherokee. She was a very traditional Navajo woman, who only spoke Navajo. She really loved making clothes and was known for it. I didn’t find this out until after I finished undergrad. By the time I came along, she was much older, and I knew her as a rugweaver.

Spring Awakening at American Academy of Dramatic Art, NY. Director: Barbara Rubin. Set Design: CJ Howard. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Michael O
Spring Awakening at American Academy of Dramatic Art, NY. Director: Barbara Rubin. Set Design: CJ Howard. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor.

 

What would you like people of color considering or in the early stages of a theatre career to know?  Is there any advice you wish you'd be given?
If you need help, reach out, even if it’s something that feels really basic. I think as a person of color going into a new situation, it feels like you have to go above and beyond, proving you should be there. There’s always that pressure of “am I the first one of my kind to be here” and you don’t want to screw it up for the next person. So, I have to constantly show that I’m worthy. Reach out because our collective mind is a lot stronger than the singular. Ask questions. 

When I got into more intense academic settings, I regressed a bit, thinking that I had to figure out everything on my own. That mentality led to things being more intense than they needed to be. You don’t want to burn yourself out. Pacing yourself and looking for opportunities to grow is crucial. You don’t have to run yourself into the ground and if you need help, ask for it. Asking questions about someone else’s journey can make your path smoother. I would’ve saved a lot of time doing that. Finding people you want to be in your community really helps.

Venus and Adonis for New Camerata Opera at The Flea Theater, NY. Director: Jennifer Williams.  Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Emma Clarkson. Projection Design: Yee Eun Nam.
Venus and Adonis for New Camerata Opera at The Flea Theater, NY. Director: Jennifer Williams. Costume Design: Asa Benally. Lighting Design: Emma Clarkson. Projection Design: Yee Eun Nam.

Who was a role model of yours in your respective field?
My role model is Maria Tallchief, the ballet dancer. When I discovered her story and her path, it served as a roadmap of sorts. Even though I was going into costumes, a lot opened up. I was born in Claremore, Oklahoma, and she was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma and eventually ended up in New York City as a Prima Ballerina with The New York City Ballet. The more I learned about her story, I realized this was someone who was very similar to me. She was from the Osage Nation who are from the same neck of the wood. Having a Native artist from Oklahoma succeeding in an art form that she was an anomaly in, I really related to that. From a costumes standpoint, it was a whole other education in that kind of ballet design. I don’t think I would’ve ended up in New York if I hadn’t learned about her story. 

Another person who was an influence was Jock Soto, a New York City Ballet dancer who was Navajo. Finding role models helped me find my path. The person doesn’t have to do what you do- it’s important to find what about their story is inspiring.

Who was it that helped formulate who you are as a person of color trying to express your art in a white-dominated field?
It was not one specific person. The people who really helped me, saw me as an artist, first and foremost, before I even realized it. I’ve been lucky to find these people along the way. They were the ones who were open with their experience and talents and helped to cultivate me as a theater artist.