Q&A: Penumbra Costume Designer Mathew LeFebvre on Costuming the Plays of August Wilson

Penumbra Theater is well-known for its productions of the plays of August Wilson, with whom the St. Paul-based company worked early in his career. In fact, the playwright’s very first play, 1977’s Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, and his 1982 play Jitney premiered on the Penumbra stage. Over the past four decades, the company has continued to show his subsequent works—including Fences, which was written while Wilson was living in St. Paul.

Since the beginning, costumes have been an integral part of helping to illustrate the playwright’s stories. The costumes for Penumbra’s recent production of Jitney, created by longtime Penumbra costume designer Mathew LeFebvre, evoked the time period and mood of 1970s-era Pittsburgh. A freelance costume designer in the Twin Cities for more than 20 years, LeFebvre has also designed many costumes for the Guthrie Theater and Children’s Theatre Company, and is a professor and head of the design/tech program at the University of Minnesota’s theater department.

This Tuesday, June 6, LeFebvre will speak about his experience designing costumes for Jitney and other Wilson plays at Behind the Seams: Costume Designing August Wilson’s Plays. The program will also include a tour of the exhibition, Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage, currently on view at the Minnesota History Center through July 30, which features original scripts, props, costumes, costume sketches, and other artifacts that document the theater’s productions over the years. In advance of the event, I spoke to the designer about his background in costume design, his experience costuming Wilson’s plays for Penumbra, how costuming helps tell a play’s story, and the pros and cons of using vintage clothing.

Sketch of “Rena” from Jitney by Mathew LeFebvre

Courtesy minnesota history center

How did you get your start in costume design?

Originally, I thought I was going to be an actor. I attended the University of Minnesota – Morris to study acting, and I had to take costume design courses to fulfill the degree. I had drawn all my life, and because I had actor training, it kind of clicked. I got a job working at Teener’s Theatrical in Minneapolis and started volunteering at Theatre in the Round doing costumes. I eventually started getting paid gigs at Child’s Play Theater (now known as Stages Theater Company) and Cricket Theater, which is now gone, and shows for Theatre de la Jeune Lune and Minnesota Opera. I decided to go back to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. During my final year of the program, the costume faculty member decided to leave, and I ended up getting that job. A few years later, I got my first gig at the Guthrie Theater. A few years after that, I got my first job at the Penumbra.

How many shows have you done for Penumbra? How many were August Wilson plays?

I’ve lost track of how many shows I’ve done at the Penumbra, but it’s been at least 20. I designed for all seven of the August Wilson plays that Penumbra has put on.

What is your creative process for designing costumes for August Wilson’s plays?

One of the things about his plays that I love is that the language is so rich and poetic. It’s very much grounded in reality, but there’s a poetry and rhythm to the language. Because it’s grounded in reality, I do a lot of research, visually. For Jitney, which is set in the 1970s, I did a lot of research into street photography, trying to get a sense of what these people would look like. There’s a great resource to the Hill District area of Pittsburg that most of the plays are set—a photographer named Teeny Harris, who took photos of people in that neighborhood for a number of decades. I also looked at Ebony and Jet magazines from that time. It’s helpful to just get a sense of the feeling of that period. With the plays that Lou [Bellamy, Penumbra Theatre’s founder] and I have done the most—Fences, which is set in the 1950s, Jitney in the 1970s, Two Trains Running in the 1960s—all take place in periods in which you can find vintage clothes.

What do you love about using vintage clothing in plays?

I really like to use vintage clothes when I can because there’s an authenticity to it. As great as you can be as a costume designer, when you’re recreating something, at least in my case, there’s always some subconscious editing to form things to a more contemporary aesthetic. If there’s something truly vintage from that period, you can’t deny it—you embrace it and run with it. I do a lot of research and with the sources I go to, it isn’t long before you start seeing the same images over and over again. But when you’re dealing with vintage clothes, each piece is pretty much unique, and you’re going to find things that you’ve never dreamed up that are so much better than anything you’ve seen before.

Is there anything challenging about using vintage clothing?

The older it is, the smaller it tends to be. People even 30 years ago tended to be smaller than they tend to be now. A lot of times, it’s difficult to fit a contemporary actor in vintage. There’s an actor at Penumbra named Abdul Salaam El Razza. He’s quite tall and his proportions are a challenge. His neck isn’t very large but his sleeve length is almost 39 inches. Another challenge was costuming Leslie Lee’s Black Eagles play at Penumbra. All of the guys were airmen that flew during WWII, so it was difficult to come up with pieces that were authentic from that time period. I ended up renting a lot of stuff out of a place in L.A. that rents to films.

Sketch of “Youngblood” from Jitney by Mathew LeFebvre

courtesy Minnesota history center

What was the process that went into designing costumes for Jitney this past year?

I was able to pull together a number of items for each character that I felt like within the world of the play was right for the character. Then I worked with the actor to find out what worked best. For Jasmine Hughes [who played Rena], we had close to 10 different outfit possibilities, and we sort of auditioned each one of them until we found the pieces that really made sense for the character and the play, and the colors that worked best to tell the story. I found this amazing blue knit jumpsuit at Lula Vintage Wear on Selby and Snelling in St. Paul. It was amazing. It was one of those things I wouldn’t have dreamed of, and we had to try it. It was perfect—it was very much ’70s but there was a practicality to it as well. She’s a young woman who’s going to school and pinching every penny to make things meet. It just felt. It had the right vibe to it.

What are some approaches you took for other August Wilson plays?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in the 1920s, was actually a co-production with Penumbra, Arizona Theater Company, and the Guthrie, so there was a lot more money budgeted for that show. The show started at Arizona, and they have a costume shop with staff, so the production support was healthy. And so with that production, we actually were able to able to build a majority of that show, which was really great fun. Doing a lot of research into the 1920s in Chicago, and Ma Rainey was a real person so there was some information that factored into her design. We really wanted to do this beaded 1920s dress, and I combined three different beaded fabrics into the design. Working with beaded fabric is really, really time-consuming. You have to secure the hems of the threads of each bead length. We were able to build a number of men’s suits too, which is great. It’s rare you’re going to find a 1920s suit now. If you do find one, most likely it will be a size 36. It’s very, very rare to find a decent sized 1920s men’s suit. And even if you do find it, it might not be really interesting-looking other than being authentic.

How is costuming used to convey aspects of different characters and move the action forward?

I’m always thinking internally about the character, and having the clothes have some kind of psychological extension of the character. They’re not just pretty clothes. A lot of times, it’s not appropriate to have pretty clothes. It has to be reflective of who these characters are. It always starts with the script. One of the things I like to do when breaking down a script is to list all of the things the character says about themselves in the dialogue and what others say about the character. A lot of times, it’s more fleshing out who these characters are and their personalities. I always work closely with the actors and to make sure they feel the clothes align with the characterization they’re creating. You can also really break each character into simple adjectives. Are they light or dark? Are they happy or sad? Are they rough or smooth? That’s reflected in the choice of fabric, the color, the texture, the pattern—all of those things can really help to express the character and also show an arc of the character as well.

Sketch of “Healy” from Jitney by Mathew LeFebvre

courtesy minnesota history center

How does budget come into play, creating costumes for the Guthrie versus a smaller company such as Penumbra?

Again, it goes back to vintage clothing—a lot of times when you’re working on these shows, you don’t have the resources to have things built to your specifications. Typically with a Guthrie production, you go in with your designs and you know those things will be built to your specifications. They have wig people and hat makers and staff to sew women’s and men’s clothing. Penumbra is a much smaller company with less of a budget, and you have to figure out how to make it work. I never really had a show at Penumbra where I had the resources to have tailored suits made for anybody so I really have to find a way to make it work. When I find really great vintage suits, even if it’s not appropriate for the show I’m working on at the time, I’ll tend to buy it and hang onto it. There’s a character in Jitney named Shealy who’s a bookie and he’s a little flashier. I had this suit for close to 30 years in this amazing burgundy polyester suit with black velvet patches for the pockets, but it’s a very specific size and I’ve never been able to use it before this show.

What’s it like costuming the same play multiple times, as you’ve done for Penumbra?

Lou Bellamy and I have done Two Trains Running four different times. The central idea we start with is the same, but every single time there are different actors playing the roles, and the nuances they bring to the characters have to be addressed. Each time we do these plays, we learn new things, and the actors bring new facets to the characters that are reflected in a different way. If I do a show now versus two years from now, I’m a different person today. There are things that are going to resonate with me differently than they did before.

“Behind the Seams: Costume Designing August Wilson’s Play” takes place Tuesday, June 6 from 6-8 p.m. (talk at 7 p.m.) at Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul; free (including exhibition admission), registration recommended via mnhs.org. “Penumbra Theatre at 40: Art, Race and a Nation on Stage” is on view at Minnesota History Center now through July 30. Regular admission is $12; $10 seniors and students; $6 ages 5-17.

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