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This is a fact of which Robin Thede is particularly proud: In three seasons of A Black Lady Sketch Show, the series has never used the same hairstyle for different characters. “Our hair team does not repeat a look, throughout hundreds of characters every season,” the HBO comedy series’ creator and star tells THR.
For season three’s six episodes and 36 sketches, that meant 148 separate hairstyles for the four main castmembers and guest stars and more than 300 for background players. The hair department used 92 wigs for the main cast and 115 for background, plus 30 packs of synthetic braiding hair, 20 bundles of human hair and 12 ponytails.
“My trailer was a disaster all the time,” laughs department head Shavonne Brown, who joined the show this season. “I had these big massive trunks filled with wigs — two just for background — and we would label them ‘synthetic,’ ‘human’ and for the different actors. Robin was like, ‘You need all this stuff?’ But [after the season], she said, ‘Now I get it.’ I was always prepared no matter what.”
Brown says the major challenge her six-person team — all Black women — faced was the quantity of required looks, which also all had to live up to ABLSS‘ high premium production standards. For the biblical-themed “The Res-herrection,” the team had to make more than 20 dread wigs and a dozen Afro wigs for all the background players. “Strictly Frizzness,” Brown’s favorite sketch to work on, involved fewer characters but still needed multiple wigs for stunt doubles.
“That was fun and creative to do,” says Brown of the sketch, a video game parody in which the opponents were personified hairstyles. “[The character] Box Braids’ wig was so heavy that I had to keep adjusting it for the stunt double because she had to do cartwheel flips. We also had to make sure the wigs stayed on extra tight while making them comfortable.”
Unlike some other stylists, Brown doesn’t use glue in order to protect the actors’ hair, instead sewing in extra straps to secure wigs. “Because I am an African American woman, I understand,” she explains. “I make sure their edges are protected, and we would oil and massage their scalps daily.” The team also was scrupulous about custom-fitting its wigs and adding padding and cushions if needed.
Another look Brown is particularly proud of coming up with is the style Ashley Nicole Black wears in “Ashy Sunday,” in which she plays a woman who is turned out from head to ankle (the devil tempts her with moisturizer for her leprous-looking feet). “Ashley wanted something natural but not like [her usual look],” says Brown, who offered to make her a custom wig featuring butterfly braids. “It took me about nine hours, and it looked amazing onscreen, so I was very proud of that.”
In recent years, the industry has gradually begun listening to Black actresses sharing stories of having to do their own hair, lest they face unflattering or even damaging work by stylists inexperienced with textured hair. “We had [guest stars] bringing in bags of wigs or doing their own hair before arriving. A lot of people would come into the trailer and be like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s all Black people,’ ” Brown says of her teammates, four of whom were able to join the union as a result of working on the show this season (the other already was a member). “They were happy to see us and they thanked us at the end of the day because I also made sure that however they came in, we would put [their own hairstyles] back and make sure they were good when they left.”
Explains Thede, “Black hair is an art in and of itself, just in the world, let alone this show. I feel like people just take [ABLSS‘ hair department] for granted because Black women are always changing their hair, but you’ve got to give credit to these artists.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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