Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene would most likely be a lawyer working in her homeland, South Africa, if not for a bug that bit her as a preteen. Like most young girls that age, she became excited about expressing herself through clothing.

“My parents used to travel and would being me back American teen magazines,” Kunene recalls. “I started trying to recreate outfits I saw in them using my own clothes.

That creative expression eventually grew (more about that almost lawyer detour later) into a career as an up-and-coming costume designer for the stage.

‘Familiar’
When: To Jan. 13, 2019
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20-$109
Info: steppenwolf.org

Kunene is currently creating the costumes for Danai Gurira’s comedy-drama “Familiar” at Steppenwolf Theatre, which stars a powerhouse cast of Chicago actresses — Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Jacqueline Williams, Ora Jones, Celeste M. Cooper and Lanise Antoine Shelley.

It’s a story about “coming to America and living here and navigating the culture,” Kunene says adding, “It’s something I could closely relate to.”

Gurira, who is best known as an actor (the warrior General Okoye in “Black Panther” and zombie killer Michonne on “The Walking Dead), also is an accomplished playwright and has said she likes to “focus on stories that need to be told and are not told enough.”

Her Tony Award-nominated play “Eclipsed” is a searing drama about captive women in the Liberian civil war. Her more recent work is “Familiar,” which takes place during a Minnesota winter as a Zimbabwean-American family prepares for the wedding of its eldest daughter. As tensions explode, the tight-knit family must find a way to preserve their past while building a new future.

cSome of the costumes designed by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene for Steppenwolf Theatre's production of "Familiar," are photographed Thursday, November 15th, 2018. | James Foster/F

Some of the costumes designed by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene for Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “Familiar,” are photographed Thursday, November 15, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“Danai shows us a different way of saying what it means to be American,” director Danya Taymor says. “She has written a story that is so African but also so American and so familiar.”

For Kunene, her dive into costumes always starts with a reading of the play and some general research. She also spends time in rehearsals to observe what the actors are discovering about their character.

“I’m designing in support of their performance. The sketches and research are not set in stone. Things can change and develop from my observations and seeing the clothes in the space, in movement.”

In the past, Kunene has designed costumes ranging from the avant-garde to period styles to the modern everyday. It’s the latter of these that she says can often be the most challenging. “Familiar,” set in 2011, fits right into this category.

“We’re not dealing with something set in the 1950s or an 18th-century farce,” Kunene, 34, says. “So the question is how do you create something interesting with clothes that people are used to seeing.”

Kunene’s designs for “Familiar” include professional dresses, high-end couture looks, traditional African dresses and t-shirts and slouchy pajama pants. She also set the styles for the women’s hair, which range from sleek hairdos and natural styles to box braids and weaves.

“Every character in this play is wrestling with their relationship with their American and African identities,” director Taymor says. “And through the clothes and hairstyles we see that struggle externalized.”

“We’re not dealing with something set in the 1950s or an 18th-century farce,” says designer Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, about the costumes she has created for Steppenwolf Theatre's production of "Familiar." | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“We’re not dealing with something set in the 1950s or an 18th-century farce,” says designer Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, about the costumes she has created for Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “Familiar.” | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Kunene grew up in South Africa where both her parents were medical doctors and like most parents wanted their children to choose professions that would set them up in life. After designing clothes for high school plays, she wanted to study fashion design but her father wanted her to study “something real” which led to a degree in economics and finance which had her headed to law school.

But surprisingly, her father realized her passion had not died and offered her the chance to study fashion design instead, which she did at London’s Istituto Marangoni and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Now based in New York City, she is building a resume that includes productions at Atlantic Theatre Company, The Public Theatre and Round House Theatre as well as working with Spike Lee on his short film “Brave.”

A busy Kunene also teaches costume and set design at Colgate University in upstate New York and next year hopes to re-launch her clothing line, which got derailed when she began graduate school at Tisch. She also has a growing interest in theater set design and film production design.

“I like the idea of having control of the whole world,” she says, laughing. “Playing around with space is fun.”

No matter what shoes she’s stepping into, Kunene says above all she loves telling stories and collaborating with the entire creative team to find a way to tell them.

“The beautiful thing about working in these bigger cities is that you get to work with people from all over the place who bring these amazing perspectives to share. You’re always telling someone else’s story and hoping you do justice to it. And when it all comes together having the opportunity to share it with an audience is very rewarding.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.