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PRODUCTION SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Karen Perry

Costume designer Karen Perry has a career stretching back over 40 years. Since 2012, she has designed twelve shows at Two River Theater. Radio Golf is lucky number 13. She spoke with Former Artistic Assistant Kamilah Bush about her career, her relationship with August Wilson and his work, and this production of Radio Golf.

KAMILAH BUSH: You’ve been so blessed to be designing for so long. What keeps you doing this every day?

KAREN PERRY: Well I like what I do. You have to like it because if you don’t, you need to be doing something else. Some jobs are harder than others. Some actors are harder than others. Some directors are harder than others. Some plays are harder than others, but I’m not afraid of a challenge. There
are not a lot of plays that I want to do repeat performances of. Once I’ve done them and had the experience of being in what I consider an optimum production where the integrity, quality, and understanding [of the play] are delivered crystal clear to an audience, then I’m usually done. This is my third or fourth Radio Golf. So, I will not do Radio Golf ever again. I said yes because John [Dias] and Stephanie [Coen] asked me and I knew it was Brandon [Dirden] and I do not like to say no to any of those three, if I can.

K.B.: Radio Golf is August’s [Wilson] last play—both chronologically in the American Century Cycle and it is the last play he wrote in his lifetime. It’s the culmination of his life’s work. You’ve designed 8 of his 10 plays—

K.P.: I’ve designed 9. I’ve designed every August show except Fences and I’m kind of okay with that. If I don’t design all 10, I’ll be alright. I’m at that point in my life where I’ve got to like what I’m doing. I’ve got to like who I’m doing it with. I’ve got to care about all of it, or I’m just going to say no. I can stay home. I really, really like my home a lot.

K.B.: Do you think that there’s something special about Radio Golf, knowing that it’s the last one?

K.P.: It’s hard for a lot of people. I remember when August was trying to finish it and he got really, really sick to the point where he was denying treatment to finish [the play]. Gem of the Ocean was on Broadway and it closed early. Emily Mann and Carey Perloff worked it out so that it could go from Broadway to the regional theater world quickly. August asked Ruben [Santiago-Hudson] to direct it. It was my introduction to seeing and designing Gem of the Ocean. August would call Ruben every day when we were at McCarter rehearsing. I remember the day that he died. We just stopped. We just stopped everything. Rehearsal was over.

Radio Golf was still in process. I saw it and thought “this is an odd button.” After Gem, I felt he didn’t have to write nothing else. He could have stopped there. For me, that is his perfect play. It took me designing Radio Golf twice before I really understood. Also, having my home, Harlem, moving through a huge gentrification, before my very eyes was heartbreaking and astounding. While I was designing these other two Radio Golfs, I realized what it really felt like living through it. We’re still having that happen. For anybody who feels that their history is not important and that the future is all that there is, I believe that they are doomed to repeat the wrongs of the past by not looking back and observing the lessons. That’s what Radio Golf is for me. Oh Kam, you ask me questions and I go through history.

K.B.: But isn’t that what August wants? He was asking us in his August brilliance to stop and look back. I think that’s the gift that he left us was, “You need to stop and look back at the things…”

K.P.: “Look what the New World has wrought.” Like Lorraine Hansberry has Walter say “It’s always been about money, Mom.” That part of A Raisin in the Sun always resonates in my head when I’m watching Radio Golf. It’s like there’s Lorraine. There she is.

K.B.: I think that in this play we see a different kind of character. We see men and women of means, wealthier people, when so many of his other characters were working class folk.

K.P.: They was “The Folk”

K.B.: Does that change the way you design? What does that do to your design when we’re still in August’s world—we’re still at Aunt Ester’s house, we’re still on The Hill— but we’ve got these other folk that we have not met yet?

K.P.: They are different. They are the children and the grandchildren of the other “Folk” that we met. They are the dream that they wanted for them. That’s who they are. That’s the dilemma. They literally don’t know from whom they came and how they got to be the kid that got to wear a Brooks Brothers suit, who has a wife that’s probably one of the 100 Black Women of the Blah, Blah, Blah. They kind of know it—they’ve heard the stories of their grandparents at Thanksgiving—but they didn’t know. And then you get those “Folk” saying, “Hey wake up. Cousin! Cousin! We are still related. We don’t play much golf. We don’t play much tennis.” It’s very interesting when all of these characters meet in a scene. It’s like, “I went to school with you” and “I know you because I used to be you.”

K.B.: We’ve been talking a lot about history and this play is set in what I like to call “recent history.” Is that a different kind of challenge when designing a show that’s not present day but recent enough history that people who are working on it or are coming to see it can look back and see something they know to be true?

K.P.: The tricky thing about recent history, which I also encountered doing Love in Hate Nation when we moved to the 80s, is it becomes everybody’s mind’s eye or memory of where they were then. If you were a little kid, you’re trying to remember what you were wearing when you were a little kid, or what your mom and dad wore. There are these images of what things looked like that sometimes link up and sometimes don’t, which is why I have to do homework and dramaturgical work so that we can see what people actually looked like in the 90s. And the 90s was a period where kind of everything went. Some of the leftovers of the 80s bled over into the 90s for a long time. Younger people were wearing the Cross Colours and the FUBU and there was still the big shoulders. Then the silhouette got a little bit narrower and more conservative. You can see it if you watched The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. You could see the difference between what Hillary and Aunt Viv were wearing and what Fresh and Jazzy and the girls they were dating were wearing. The same with Phylicia [Rashad] in The Cosby Show. All four of her daughters had different styles. They were four completely different styles. Sandra did not look like Denise, who did not look like Vanessa, who did not look like little Rudy, or their friends, or Claire. If you were watching Friends, then you got the Rachel haircut. If you were watching Seinfeld, you got that whole thing. It’s that kind of a challenge. Everything kind of went so you just have to figure out who this person is. What is his background? What does he symbolize? I’m just excited to see what Brandon [Dirden] and this cast, what their energy brings to the play. They’re so smart. I’ve enjoyed meeting with each of them individually and talking to each one of them about their lives and their places in what I call the “New World Order,” this new decade of 2020, this new girl. I’m excited to see what [the play] means to this particular generation that’s watching.