Digital Production Design: Sophisticated Ladies

by Duke Ellington | Directed by Baakari Wilder | Digital Production Design by Kristina Friedgen | Produced by Young Artists of America, December 2020

Production Concept

Sophisticated Ladies celebrates the life and music of Duke Ellington. This virtual production of the revue brought Duke’s music and the history of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz music to young performers from Virginia to New York who took part in the development of the piece. As the Digital Production Designer, I worked closely with director Baakari Wilder to ideate, storyboard, coach and stage the numbers that YAA performed. This included a mix of numbers shot socially distanced on location, as well as performances filmed through self-tape and later assembled together through editing.

Treating each number as its own story, Baakari and I worked to stage interpretations of numbers that emphasized Black history and artistry through a traditional musical theatre approach – song, dance, and musical staging while taking advantage of a cinematic approach. Numbers such as “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Satin Doll/Squeeze Me But Please Don’t Tease Me” were filmed in locations significant to Duke Ellington – U Street (or Black Broadway), Howard University, and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, DC, for instance. Others, like “Solitude” feature Alvin Ailey style choreography danced by the singer – a feat not usually attempted in a stage production. Interspersed with the performances by YAA and the other partnering performing groups were documentary sequences that featured information about Duke Ellington’s life and the history of Black Broadway.

Ultimately, this production Sophisticated Ladies aimed to bring a younger generation of performers into contact with an important chapter of American, and more specifically, Black history while employing a new medium to share this production with a national audience.

Selected clips from Sophisticated Ladies featuring the following performers:
“In a Sentimental Mood” – Tiani Thorne, Spencer Whims
“Caravan” – Ian Rubin with Capitol Tap
“Solitude” – Sitare Sadeghi
“Satin Doll/Squeeze Me but Please Don’t Tease Me” – Sebastian Gervase & Madi Heinemann with Kayla Bobb and Ellie Arenstein
“Sophisticated Lady” – Reid Taylor with YAA Female Ensemble

Description of Experience

At Young Artists of America, we have always sought to tell diverse stories and explore the canon of Musical Theatre through a social justice lens. After the summer of 2020, it became clear that our fall production needed to address the state of race relations in America by showcasing the work of artists of color. I suggested Sophisticated Ladies to our Artistic Director, Rolando Sans, and this set in motion an ambitious multi-organization production of the piece.

To shepherd the production, we brought in Baakari Wilder to direct the overall vision for YAA and partnered with four other arts organizations committed to Black artistry: ArtsCentric in Baltimore, Capitol Tap in the District of Columbia, Divine Dance Institute in Capitol Heights, and the Edge School of the Arts in Jamaica Queens. YAA also brought in Leayne Dempsey to dramaturg the show. Through sessions with Leayne, the performers learned the history of Duke Ellington, the Harlem Rennaissance, and tap dance, but also historical behaviors such as coded eye flirting that we used in the choreography of a few numbers.

In my capacity as Digital Production Designer (DPD), I oversaw the overall vision of the film and communicated directly with the editor while working closely with Mr. Wilder to help translate his ideas for numbers from traditional theatrical staging in order to best communicate them for a filmed format. While some of the numbers were filmed by cinematographers, the majority of footage was captured by students using smart phones and required detailed communication with all performers about camera angles, set ups, lighting, and costuming. As such, this role demanded very detailed organization and communication to execute.

In addition to my DPD role, I coached several actors in their performances, choreographed a few numbers (“Bli-Blip”, “Imagine My Frustration”, “Satin Doll/Squeeze Me…”, and “Sophisticated Lady” and staged some others, many of which are featured above in the reel. Sophisticated Lady exemplified a community-produced performance that relied on the various assets of every member of the team – from the youth performers to artistic leadership. Because of its digital nature, it also enabled YAA to partner with new organizations and share our platform and audience to broaden the impact of this show.