Reflection is an important aspect of Clint Ramos’ design work. It’s an ethos that plays out in both his scenic design for Slave Play and costume designs for The Rose Tattoo. As it happens, both productions looked back at a different time through a contemporary lens—a theme to which Ramos contributed with his work.
Whether by using mirrors to force the audience to examine its inherited legacy from slavery or Sicilian-inspired clothing to convey a sense of disparity between immigrants and locals living in the South, Ramos's Tony-nominated work from the 2019-2020 season created a bridge for audiences to contemplate what they saw on stage.
As a result of this work, Ramos scored two Tony nominations. He already has one win for his costumes in Eclipsed. Below, Ramos shares his Explore Clint Ramos’s Tony-Nominated Slave Play Set and The Rose Tattoo Costumescreative process on the designs for Slave Play and The Rose Tattoo.
Entering the Golden Theatre, audiences were immediately confronted with two images as they sat down before Jeremy O. Harris’ look at interracial relationships began: a stage-wide panorama of an antebellum plantation and themselves.
The latter was created using mirrors, an idea that Ramos came up with after director Robert O’Hara decided he wanted the play performed in-the-round. Despite New York Theatre Workshop allowing seat changes for other productions, the group gave Ramos a hard “no.” "I called NYTW and i was like 'can we take off the seats like we do for Ivo Van Hove?'" explained Ramos, "and they were like, 'no, you can't, you are not allowed to do that.' Ok, cool. So, I had to think a lot about what we had to do."
While mulling Slave Play, Ramos attended another production on Broadway that was marketing itself as one of color and yet the designer barely saw any diversity in the audience. “I won’t say which one”, Ramos notes—but it sparked an idea. “We can literally use the American theatre as the plantation...if we reflect them onto themselves, then that gives us the in-the-round feeling.” The mirrors punctuate the fact that, Black or white, if you are from America, you are affected by the legacy of slavery.
In addition to serving as a reflection point, the mirrors become nondescript provocateurs in the show’s final act. Pivoting the mirrors in the bedroom forces the theatre to become a coliseum. “That bend creates a kind of gladiator battle—everybody was just watching everybody watching everybody watching this couple.”
In his research, Ramos had gone deep into the world of relationships and sex. “I got fascinated with how people actually perform sex. Not in a porn way, but how they perform sex to each other,” says the designer. “I went into the research of private homes with mirrors, private photographs of couples—the idea of what do private people do [behind closed doors]? We talk a lot now about ‘that’s so performative,’ so to have the most intimate act also be a performance, that's what Slave Play is, or what part of it is. They are trying to perfect that performance because it's not working for them anymore.”
In addition to mirrors, Ramos's scenic design plays with perspective by placing elements of the set in places other than directly on stage. “The ghost of slavery hovers as a panorama around the audience but is only visible through reflection. This is not a thing that exists to the performers,” says Ramos. The panorama was called for by Harris in his script, in a way. “Perhaps the spaces on the MacGregor Plantation are literalized with deep verisimilitude (this is preferred in some ways), but if they are not they should be presented with the bareness of a black box.”
Despite the intensity of the project—and anticipated backlash due to the content—Ramos forged ahead. “It is not about the risk-taking, it’s about the possibilities of provocation.” That helps mitigate the fear, the designer says. “I like bold ideas and I like to push the envelope and I’m very lucky that I work with a lot of people who have that same ethos. I work with a lot of people who are not scared or afraid to poke the bear. That's what theatre is and supposed to be.”
Clint Ramos' Set Design for Slave Play
THE ROSE TATTOO
To create a look that signaled that Marisa Tomei's character was a Sicilian-American living in the South, Ramos had to make one major adjustment to his original designs. “Marisa is really fit. So, we had to add some padding [up top] and a little bit around the hips.” That gave her a realistic portrayal to work with of a middle-aged woman who gives up on life at the beginning of the play.
As for the look of her character, Serafina, Ramos needed to create a progression. Following the death of her husband, Serafina pulls away from her friends and the rest of the town. “Internally, she’s separating herself from society, but she’s also an immigrant. She becomes an immigrant to her own self.”
So, it’s no surprise that she looks a little disheveled in the beginning, wearing only a slip and robe. “[The slip] was a feat of engineering, because it needed to hug her and it needed to be convincing that her body is that shape and it also needed to look lived in”
In addition to her outsider status, there’s a style dichotomy that exists between the conservative Sicilian-Americans and the more established Southerners. “There's an oppressive quality to the way [Serafina] looks, and everyone around her, except for the Sicilian women, are really extra. It’s almost like this force that’s pounding on her.”
The Women of The Rose Tattoo
Two of the most starkly contrasted characters from Serafina's perspective are her daughter, Rose, and her husband’s mistress, Estelle. “There’s something about the American characters. They’re not afraid to get what they want, whether it's right or wrong,” says Ramos.
Estelle works at the casino as a card dealer, so her wardrobe is reminiscent of evening wear. “She's coming in like Marilyn [Monroe] in the middle of the day with a bustier,” the designer says. In addition to the femininity of the top, Estelle wears a pantsuit, which asserts her power as a threatening figure to Serafina’s happiness, who is none to pleasure with the way Estelle presents herself.
Even the townswomen are outraged by her appearance. “In talking about the immigrant mentality, there is always a sense to me that immigrants have a lot of shame attached to their personality, so they don’t really go for the things that they want immediately.” On the flip side, Americans grab whatever they want and say, “that’s mine. I deserve that.” It’s a tale as old as time: one group believes in a moral order and code and the other does not—no one is in the right or the wrong, but it’s easy to differentiate through style and clothing.
It’s ironic, then, that Rose—who begins dating boys at the start of the play— begins to dress in the American fashion, with Ramos giving her a young Elizabeth Taylor vibe. A tight waist but long, flowy skirts is all she needs to convey the blossoming young woman she’s turning into, creating another nightmare for Serafina. One could argue, Ramos says, that Serafina is vilifying Estelle for the way she dresses and outward expression of desire, “but her daughter is literally about to be the victim of that same circumstance.”
Women aren't the only objects of desire in the play. The idea behind dressing Alvaro Mangiacavallo was simple: “There needed to be a sense that the moment she encountered him, she was screwed. The deal was done…game over…That character is based on Tennessee Williams’ lover, who he nicknamed the “horse”, which is so extra, it’s literally too much."
Thankfully, with a star like Emun Elliott, it wasn’t too hard to imagine outfits that would capture Serafina—and the audience’s—heart.
For Alvaro’s first look, Ramos leaned into the character’s profession as a deliveryman. Right away, the designer knew he wanted to play into the sexy deliveryman trope that has existed for decades. “This is a person who is actually coming to your territory that doesn't belong in your world, but also, is just unbelievably magnetic.” The fantasy needed to be real and then deliver when he takes his clothes off. “After that, it was like easy,” jokes Ramos.
Another character easy to spot in the production is the one constantly antagonizing (and possibly cursing) Serafina, The Strega. “I imagined her to be like this cafeteria lady at the local school, who basically lost her mind looking for her lost son.” To embody this look of insanity, Ramos went all out with items that The Strega would’ve found lying around on the streets: 50s-style shorts, knee-high socks, a hair net, geriatric slippers (one slipper, one heel), and a man's blazer.
“I remember Connie [Schulman] just looking at it as I was narrating the costume and she was like, “I can't even describe to you how a) amazing this is, but also b) how the fuck do you think about these things?”