Growing up, Sarafina Bush ’12 always loved dance and theater. It seems preordained, as the daughter of Adelphi sociology professor Melanie Bush, PhD, she was named after the title character in the musical Sarafina!, which depicts the story of a group of South African students brave enough to participate in the Soweto riots against apartheid.
When it was time for her to go to college, it was a no-brainer for her to choose the school her mother teaches at, a college that Sarafina Bush could make home. She decided to major in French and minor in dance. Little did she know that her interest in dance and her time at Adelphi would help her realize her love for costume design, a passion that would take her to Broadway.
As a dance minor, Bush was required to take Introduction to Costume Design, where she found encouragement and a new ambition. Sean Sullivan, associate professor of theatre, in particular, encouraged her to explore costume design while working on many Adelphi productions, she said.
“I was very lucky during my time at Adelphi,” Bush said. “The professors and the people that I had around me were very helpful and allowed me to explore the avenue of costume design.”
In her junior year, she was costume designer for the Adelphi production of Topdog/Underdog, a play written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that follows the relationship of two Black men trying to survive in America.
“It was my first time being involved in a Black play,” Bush said. “That was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh, I could do this for a living. There’s a way for me to do this career where I get to work on things that feel very socially and politically relevant to me.'”
Making It to Broadway
Since graduating, Bush has worked as a costume designer for dozens of plays, many of which have a message of social justice. Most recently, she was the costume designer for Pass Over, a play about two Black men trapped by the existential dread of a world where too many of their peers have been killed by the police. Pass Over was the first production to open on Broadway after lockdown and played at the August Wilson Theatre, directed by Obie Award-winner Danya Taymor.
Pass Over was first performed as an 85-minute riff on Waiting for Godot, which was directed by Taymor at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017. In 2018, Spike Lee directed a film version for Amazon Prime Video, which also ran at Lincoln Center Theater that same year. It has since had a number of different productions, including at the Kiln Theatre in London.
“It’s very important to see stories like Pass Over,” said Bush. “In the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s essential to keep the conversations going and continue to challenge people to think about Black folks, police brutality and systemic racism. For Black kids…to see themselves represented on the Broadway stage this way is so special.”
In 2018, Bush worked on Pass Over as a costume designer at the Lincoln Center Theater. When producers decided to bring it to Broadway, they brought her on to the creative team. Bush considers this “the best story” because Lincoln Center Theater was the same theater where her parents first watched Sarafina!.
“It feels so great to me that I ended up in theater and that my first big off-Broadway show was at the Lincoln Center Theater, which is where Sarafina! was performed. That very show at the Lincoln Center Theater, that’s what brought me to theater.”
Bringing Humanity to Characters
Bush is now assisting with MJ the Musical, an upcoming Broadway production that showcases the creative processes of Michael Jackson.
“My approach to design is always coming back to their humanity. It’s about prioritizing the story and using humanity to prioritize the story,” she said. “After this last year, anti-racism is the word that people are talking about. That really speaks to the value that I try to bring to my craft…It is very important to me that my design be imbued with anti-racism.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bush has had the opportunity to work on a variety of productions, including Jagged Little Pill, Dear Evan Hansen and Caroline, or Change. As a costume designer, she gets to combine all of her favorite things: storytelling, text analysis, history, performing arts and fashion.
“As things reopen, I have a couple of things that I’ll be associate- or assistant-designing for,” she said. “I’m very excited.”