As we near the opening of Crowns the whirring hum of the sewing machines in the costume shop is finally dying down after weeks of hat, dress and shoe making. While last week we gave you a taste of the joyful gospel hymns of Crowns, this week we’re giving you an inside look at the creation of the costumes of Crowns from costume designer Karen Perry. We sat down with her to find out more about the amazing clothing of this tenth anniversary production.
How did you initially become involved with Crowns?
Regina asked me; we were just finishing The Trinity River Plays, and she asked me, “How do you feel about Crowns?” I had never seen any of the productions in the last 10 years. I knew of it, I knew what it was about, where it came from and its inception, but had never had the opportunity to see it. That was more than a year ago.
Where did you find inspiration for the wardrobe in Crowns?
One of the first things that I do as I read the script is try to understand who these characters are and whether they are based on real people or are fictional. [Regina] describes these characters right in the beginning as orishas*. Each one had their own orisha, deity personality and color, so I knew that was an integral idea that I needed to incorporate: the transition of West African culture into American culture by way of Europe and Asia. All of it is in there, it makes this soup that we call America. I started there dealing with those personalities. I had also designed The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is also dealing with all of the orishas and their qualities. I know that a production of the whole trilogy was done in Chicago at Steppenwolf Theatre; I did the original productions at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton and The Public Theater in New York by the same director, Tina Landau, who was a part of all of that. So the West African—that energy, that entity—was how I began my design. I knew that the costumes needed to have a white base from the beginning to creat the “then there was light there was white” effect, so with that I added on other colors as the play progresses. Each character morphs into what they needs to be based on her character interwoven with their orisha.
Who was your favorite character to design for?
I don’t have one yet. Each one has been its own challenge, and every stage of it has been its own challenge. From their base dress to their church layer, to their hat, which is a whole other design element. Millinery—that is a whole other level of design, whether it is for a costume or for fashion. Then there are the shoes! So it’s an ensemble as a whole. Each costume had to be thought of as part of a whole and then as individuals and separates. It has been an interesting journey that seems like a tremendous amount of time that is just rolling past us.
How have you collaborated with the milliners to create the hats for this production?
Because I am a costume designer, for me, getting their costume base right and underway was a huge thing in itself. It’s a show about hats, but it is also a show about clothes and how they layer. Also, these church women, they pick their outfit first, then they go and figure out which hat to adorn this fabulousness. I sort of worked that way. Once I knew in fact what the outfit was, what the trim was, what it wasn’t—then I began thinking about the hats. I couldn’t do it the other way around. Me and the milliners, God bless them. If it wasn’t for those 10 or 12 people down in that shop, with their eye and their craft and their skill—those designers that are downstairs that have lent themselves to assist me, all of them, OH! We have been working with patience, calm and gratitude.
If you had to choose five words for the look of Crowns, what would they be?
Visually beautiful, amazing, functionally easy.
*Orishas: gods or spirits of traditional the West African Yoruba religion.
Stay tuned next week for a post on Karen Perry's costume sketches.