For over three decades, costume designer Karen Perry has built an incredible body of work on Stage and Screen, and has long been a master in her profession.
The award-winning designer is currently ensconced in Red Bank, NJ for Two River Theater’s production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, with actor Brandon J. Dirden making his directorial debut. The cast features Kevin Mambo, Brittany Bellizeare, Brian D. Coats, Crystal Dickinson, Jason Dirden, Charlie Hudson III, and Christina Acosta Robinson in a limited engagement from September 12 – October 4, 2015.
Ms. Perry is back in the Two River costume shop having designed Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine and Guadalupe in the Guest Room earlier this year. She invited me for a sneak peek of her newest creations. We popped in to say hello to wig and hair designer Erin Hicks and to Brandon, who was in rehearsal.
Special thanks to Lesley Sorenson, Jill Giuseppe, Ashlynn and Becca in the Costume Shop, and all of the cast and creative team of Seven Guitars.
Below are excerpts of my conversation with Karen.
Lia: What is your process?
Karen: I get a script. I read the script. I start doing research. I look at the period and the different characters and what their educational background might be, where they’re from. I start trying to give them a genesis. This is any script. Not just this one. Just because it’s set in 1948, has nothing to do with a period show being a fashion statement. It’s really about who the people are, where the people are coming from, what they do for a living. What is their educational background? What is their basic sensibility? That’s pretty consistent with everything I do. I come at it with a psycho-socio place, then I overlay what they might have on.
One of the characters in Seven Guitars, he probably hasn’t had anything since the 30’s that was new, so his clothes reflect that. There are other characters that are either railroad men or elevator operators. These are really good jobs in Pittsburgh at the time. No one works in the steel mill ‘cause they would have talked about it if they do. All but one character is actually from the South. Pretty much all of them are part of the migration and it’s after the war.
My process is to do all of my research and homework and then I talk to the director and see what idea the director might have. Then I look at the actors and see physically what I can handle I think is in my mind. With this Seven Guitars in particular, I had done it before and I had seen it on Broadway. It was amazing. I was very pleased with that production. And so at Signature, I was excited, much more invested and I was working alone. The process is still the same.
This time, with Brandon, by the time I got to including the director in my process, he said some things that made me go back and completely redesign the show.
He had a younger cast. He wanted them hungrier. He wanted them more competitive with one another. They’re all really good friends and they all really care about each other, but in that way that young people are always looking in somebody’s yard to see who’s grass is greener. Who might have more money or what opportunity. So I went back and redesigned it for this particular group of actors at Two River.
Lia: You’ve worked with Brandon as an actor. What has it been like to work with him as a director?
Karen: Brandon Dirden is so lovely and so humble. This is the second time I am working with the Dirden dynasty of actors. I met all three of them- Brandon, Jason and Crystal Dickinson-Dirden at Signature when we did The First Breeze of Summer together.
I actually got to know Brandon first. He’s so easy and he’s so comfortable. He’s so real, regular. There’s no pretense with him. I found him easy to talk to and to relate to. And even dressing as an actor, he’s very simple. This is my fifth time working with him, this time as a director. It’s not that different. I’m trying to let people do what they do best.
Lia: How has the Internet changed how you work?
Karen: The Internet has made all kinds of differences in how I can do my job. Zappos means I don’t have to break my back. I found 1940’s vintage fabric, the playsuit and the white dress, that is made from 70-year-old fabric that I found online on a weekend. I can’t find 70-year old fabric in a store. To be able to go online and wonder if there’s any 70-year-old fabric that I can find? Just to see prints. I can see what late 40’s prints look like and have been able to find yardage that I can purchase and make dresses.
Lia: Who are your top three inspirations?
Karen: When the going get’s really tough, and I am really blocked, I call Miss (Edith) Head. I talk to her a lot. Bernard Johnson. He designed Sophisticated Ladies and the last film he did was New Jack City. He and I have the same birthday. So I will call Bernard. The woman who mentored me from fashion into costume design –Mary Mease Warren.
Lia: When did you first meet wig and hair designer Erin Hicks?
Karen: I was told you bring people in with you, so you don’t leave people behind. I brought in two makeup and wig people that I knew would fit in really nicely at The Public Theater during my time there when Mr. Papp was still alive. One day they showed up with these three teenage girls. The girls sat and they did their homework, which was not unusual. After they finished their homework, one was sent to me let her iron those shirts, let her learn how to do XYZ. You come with me, wash these rollers out. Basically they were brought in to be off the streets, learn to do something that was other than fold up a shirt at the Gap or have somebody’s baby at 17. Erin grew up at The Public. They went from being there several times a week, to being there almost every day, to the point where we could have them doing changes, to the point where they could design and create on their own.
By the time I did Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk in 1994, which was my last show at The Public until Brother/Sister Trilogy in 2009, when I knew we were going to Broadway, I wanted to make sure that they all got to be in the show, to get their Union cards. Erin bought a house, she raised her son. He’s in college and she decided to have a new baby and start all over again. She branched off from doing Broadway hair, wigs and makeup, to almost exclusively doing film and television. The latest project is the HBO Anita Hill Story with Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce and Greg Kinnear. Click here for Erin Hicks bio.
Lia: How did you discover Two River Theater?
Karen: Ruben Santiago-Hudson kept talking about this little theater. “You’re going to love it sister.” It is a lovely little theater and conveniently located right across the street from the train station. I call it “the little engine that could”, because they do.
They make really amazing stuff happen in the space of time and with the powers that be that they have. With each and every show, from Jitney on, they have always been helpful, always available. I’ve known Ruben since he got to New York. Working at Two River with Ruben, it’s a unique kind of experience.
Lia: When did you first start working with Ruben?
Karen: I had been working between the Public Theater under Joe Papp and NEC under Douglas Turner Ward since the mid to late 70’s with my late mentor Mary Mease Warren. Because the two theaters were around the corner from each other, I was actually too young to even know it was a big deal to be working constantly at both of these prestigious places. I just didn’t know. It was just my place in this “Circus” I call show business that took me in. I didn’t know any different!! I had no idea that people were coming out of grad schools etc. and so many seasoned professionals were clamoring at the door to work in both of these institutions. It was just home too me.
I was a member at NEC before Ruben arrived on the scene, and I got to watch him very early on in his New York City theater journey, beginning with A Soldiers Story. Then I caught up with him when he got to the Public Theater with East Texas Hot Links by Eugene Lee. He was absolutely amazing. It wasn’t until we did A Raisin in the Sun at Williamstown with Gloria Foster, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise and Dion Graham that I watched him transform into one of the most generous human beings onstage and backstage with others. I’d never seen that side of him. It was genuine.
When our great and good friend, and big brother who took care of us both, Gregory Hines passed away, Ruben came over to me at the funeral and said, “It’s us, we have to take care of each other now.” I said, “Yes, we do. He wants us to do that.” It’s the kind of thing you just sort of say. If Greg said something to you, Greg did it. Ruben did the same thing. He would say, “Sis, I got this film. Sis, I got this play. Sis, I need you to go on this little ride with me.” So that’s what Two Rivers was. He said, “I need to go with my best people. I need to show my best stuff. So come. I think they’re gonna like you. I know you’re going to like it. You can have anything you need.” He talked everybody into coming out to Red Bank, NJ.
With each season, they became more accustomed to us; we became more accustomed to them. This little costume show, which literally is just three full time people, just did this magical stuff. I was just so impressed. I wondered how much more I could get out of them without burning them out or killing them. It just grew. By them time we got to the season of Trouble in Mind, John Dias and Stephanie were asking me, “What shows would you like to do?”
I gave them a list of playwrights that I would enjoy doing. Michael Cumpsty was making his directorial debut that season. John said, “I’m going to pair you with Michael and we’re going to do Wendy Wasserstein’s THIRD. So each season, bless it, I’ve been coming back.
John Dias is the best little brother, the best kindhearted artistic director, dramaturg that I have come across in a really long time. I thank God for there being a John Dias. I really do. There are a few artistic directors that I feel really warmly about. John is in the top five.
When you have worked in the industry for as long as Karen, you’re bound to have a few stories….
Karen: Regina Taylor
We’ve known each other for almost thirty years. I watched her in Estelle Parsons’ Shakespeare Lab at The Public, and she ended up going on to be the first Black Juliette at The Public Theater. We became really good friends during Machinal. I’ve designed seven of her twelve plays, in New York, Texas, Chicago and Alabama.
Karen: Phylicia Rashad and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
The very first play I ever did, when I ran away from school at The Negro Ensemble Company was with Ms. Rashad, The Great MacDaddy by Paul Carter Harrison at 2nd Ave and St. Marks Place, when NEC was there.
Karen: John Douglas Thompson
The Mark Taper Forum is one of the oldest theaters and I had never worked there before. I had not worked with Phylicia as a director. She was lovely. It was huge for her because she had never really directed an August Wilson play before. It was an opportunity that I did not want to pass up.
We’ve got Keith David, Lillias White, January LaVoy, Glynn Turman who I had worked with before because I did his one man show, From Harlem to Hollywood that Woodie King, Jr. directed and took on tour.
We get John, and he’s Herald Loomis and he’s got this coat. He’s in this coat. It’s a great coat. What they call the coats men wore from the war. We figured he got it off of someone. So we kept trying on coats.There were at least twenty coats that we tried on and none of them was just right. So we went out in search of the wool to make the coat. The Mark Taper shop has an amazing tailor. This coat was so beautiful, it was crazy how gorgeous this coat was. This was at least a $3000-$5000 coat that was custom made for John, down to his ankle where it was supposed to come, the cuff, the collar, etc. He came in, he tried it on, he got all wet in the eyes.
I said, “John, you know we got to destroy this coat.” When the coat was in the process, they called a special person to come in to destroy the coat. The tailor did not go by that door. I peeked in, I almost cried. But when she actually finished, it was what I was looking for. It hurt like hell, but it was amazing. But what John did in that role was just outstanding.
Karen: There are so many people that have changed my Life in this circus I call show business which is also my family… to name a few I would feel pressed to attempt to name them all! But I will say that along with Mary Warren, Joe Papp, Woodie King Jr, my four and a half years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Marie Hawthorne, John Sayles.
A Countless list of brilliant actors and a few wonderful directors! A Countless number of friends and designers. They have been God Sent to me on the Journey .. And then there is Mr. Gregory Hines. Who was the epitome of Cool Big Brother upon meeting! From the first moment we met as he was interviewing me to design his first directorial debut. Greg swooped in like a guardian angel from somewhere and for the next 15 years or more I was part of Gregory’s family. There’s not a day that doesn’t go by That I don’t miss him Ruben and I share that bond always.
The native New Yorker began designing for the stage in the mid 70’s. Her earlier film and stage works includes The Brother from Another Planet, directed by John Sayles, Just Looking, directed by Jason Alexander, the celebrated Public Theatre hit musical Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, as well as NBC’s Saturday Night Live, UPN series Abby with Sydney Poitier and CBS’s acclaimed original movie One Day In Montgomery: The Rosa Park Story, directed by Julie Dash and HBO’s Strapped, directed by Forrest Whittaker, both of which Ms. Perry’s received a Costume Designer Guild Award and Cable Ace Award nominations. In addition, Ms. Perry worked as the personal stylist for many premier artists, including the late great Gregory Hines. Over a 13 year period, their collaborations included the films Bleeding Heart, directed by Mr. Hines and The Tic Code directed by Gary Winick; CBS’s TV series The Gregory Hines Show, and the Showtime original film Bojangles: The Bill ‘Bojangle’ Robinson Story.
Ms. Perry’s upcoming projects include Dead and Breathing starring Lizan Mitchell at National Black Theatre; Dreamgirls at Dallas Theater Center and Having Our Say at Hartford Stage. Other shows at Two River include THIRD and Trouble in Mind in 2014, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running in 2013 and Jitney in 2012. She returns in 2016 to work on the world premiere of Lives of Reason, a new play by Two River Founder Robert Rechnitz and Kenneth Stunkel.
Her recent credits include PROOF (Quick Silver Theater Company and Classics in Color), The Happiest Song Plays Last (Second Stage); Clybourne Park, A Raisin in the Sun (Dallas Theater Center); stop. reset. and The Piano Lesson (Signature); Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (dir. Phylicia Rashad, Mark Taper); the 10th Anniversary production of Crowns, written and dir. by Regina Taylor (Goodman); Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, dir. Sheldon Epps (Pasadena Playhouse); John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, dir. Ethan McSweeny (Arena); Regina Taylor’s Trinity River Plays, dir. Ethan McSweeny (Dallas Theater Center, Goodman); The Trip to Bountiful, Walter Mosley’s The Fall of Heaven, dir. Marion McClinton (Cincinnati Playhouse); The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell McCraney, dir. Tina Landau (The Public) and Landau and Robert O’Hara (McCarter); Things of Dry Hours by Naomi Wallace, dir. Ruben Santiago-Hudson (NYTW); Having Our Say, written and dir. by Emily Mann (McCarter); and Resurrection by Daniel Beaty, directed by Oz Scott (Arena). She has designed eight of the 10 August Wilson plays including: Gem of the Ocean, The Piano Lesson, King Hedley II, Radio Golf, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars. Other theatre design highlights include NFT’s Paul Robeson, The Taking of Miss Janie, It Hasn’t Always Been This Way, Three Travelers and Salaam Huey P Newton; Crumbs for the Table of Joy, Dancing on Moonlight, Breathe, Boom.
Ms. Perry has just been nominated for Chicago’s Black Theater Alliance/Ira Aldridge Award for her designs in the Goodman Theatre’s production of stop. reset., written and directed by Regina Taylor, and received her third NAACP Image Award in 2014 for the Phylicia Rashad helmed production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum.
Her other two NAACP Image Awards are for her designs for Blues for Alabama Sky and Rosa Parks Story. She is the recipient of six AUDELCO Awards including The Piano Lesson-2013, First Breeze of Summer -2008 and Seven Guitars –2006; Chicago’s Ira Aldridge Award 2012, Ovation TV Theatre Award 2013, a 2007 Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Costume Design and 2006 Audelco Award for August Wilson’s Two Trains Running directed by Seret Scott at the Old Globe Theatre; the 2006 “Woodie” Award, and the 2005 National Black Theatre Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Costume Design for Excellence in American and Black Stage, Film and Television; as well as Henry Hewes nominations and Lortel nominations.
Seven Guitars has performances in Two River’s Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue in Red Bank, NJ from Saturday, September 12th through Sunday, October 4th. The opening night performance is Friday, September 18 at 8pm. Tickets are available from 732.345.1400 or tworivertheater.org.
Photos: In Rehearsal with Seven Guitars’ Director Brandon J. Dirden at Two River Theater
Brandon J. Dirden makes directorial debut with August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Two River Theater, September 12 – October 4
Photos: Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s YOUR BLUES AIN’T SWEET LIKE MINE starring Brandon J. Dirden, Merritt Janson, Roslyn Ruff, Andrew Hovelson and Charles Weldon at Two River Theater through May 3
Video: Deonna Bouye, Alfredo Huereca, Socorro Santiago, Charles Socarides in World Premiere of ‘Guadalupe in the Guest Room’ by Tony Meneses at Two River Theater through March 15
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in FebOne1960.com Blog, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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