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Emilio Sosa Puts his own Spin on the 1920s

The ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Costume Designer Talks Inspiration and Collaboration

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L-R: Nija Okoro, Lillias White, Lamar Richardson, Ed Swidey, and Greg Bryan in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Mark Taper Forum

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

“For me every story starts with the script—the words. And Mr. August Wilson was very specific. It’s 1927, Chicago. So that’s your inspiration,” said Tony Award®-nominated costume designer Emilio Sosa on how he got started working on Center Theatre Group’s production of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2016).

Sosa, a former Project Runway runner-up, has designed costumes for a number of pieces set in the past, including, at Center Theatre Group, 2016’s Father Comes Home From The Wars and 2014’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. “I know what the period’s supposed to look like. But as an artist, I always put my own spin on the costume,” said Sosa. “If you look at research from the 1920s, it’s all black and white. No one can tell you, ‘Oh, that color was not used then.’”

In addition to trying unusual color combinations to put his “spin” on the costumes, he’ll make other small changes that aren’t necessarily true to the period. “I’ll tweak the design of a collar or I’ll make a dress just a little bit shorter or longer, but still within the realm of reality,” he said. “That’s what I love about it. I never liked coloring books because coloring books tell you to color within the lines, and there’s no creativity. But in history, I like those lines because I can color outside of those lines and create something special.”

He also loves the research aspect of the work and the discoveries he makes about the past. “What I found was that, especially for people of color, we were really, really well dressed. We really took pride in our appearance,” he said of the 1920s. “Back when we had less means, our appearances were everything, because that was all we had. And that’s special. Even if you worked in the cotton fields all week long, that Sunday when you got to church and you were around your people, that’s when you put on your best shirt, your best dress, your best suit.”

Period can also pose certain challenges. “We as humans, we’re not the same size that people were 50, 60 years ago, so those styles translate differently on a more contemporary body shape,” said Sosa. “You have to be able to tweak the lines so you’re still honoring the period, but you have to really mold it to a modern body type. For men we’re all bigger now, on the top. And the same thing for women. We’re taller, we’re curvier.” He added, “The period, the 1920s, was very, very boxy for women. So how do you show the sensuality? It’s the fabric you pick. Some fabrics mold the body and still retain the ’20s shape. You have to have little tricks to make it work.”

Sosa doesn’t pick these fabrics in a vacuum but in collaboration with the people making them—in this case the staff at The Shop, Center Theatre Group’s costume and prop shop. “They have their own ideas about how to make things. And sometimes they have better ideas than I do, because they are literally making the costumes. And 90% of good design is making it and fabric choice,” said Sosa. “It is a collaborative effort to all get to the same point. We want to make the best possible show.”

Life on the road #MaRaineysBlackBottom @ctgla #MarkTaperForum #DussieMae @nijaonarun Performances start Sept 1

A photo posted by Emilio Sosa (@esosafashion) on

The collaboration begins even earlier, when Sosa shows his designs to the director—in this case, Phylicia Rashad. “I like to let people do their jobs. And collaboration supports that,” said Rashad of her work with Sosa. “Emilio is a designer who designs a show so that it doesn’t look like characters are wearing costumes. They’re wearing clothes that people wear. They look like people who are dressed for the day, whatever that day is.” She generally agreed with Sosa’s choices for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, including for what might be the most important piece of the costumes: Levee’s shoes. “The only one little thing we had to go over and over and over again was Dussie Mae’s dress,” said Rashad. “Because Emilio has such respect for women, he makes women look lovely. And I said, ‘It’s good to be lovely, but—no, I want more skin, I want that skirt tighter, I want it shorter.’”

Sosa also brings the actors into the process. “It’s not just me picking clothing, Ms. Rashad selecting, and then putting them on an actor,” he said. “An actor for me is an active participant in their costumes. Because I want them to live in this clothing, not just put it on. I don’t want it to feel like a costume. I want it to feel like it’s clothing that they had in their closets.”

Lillias White, who plays Ma Rainey, certainly feels that way—or aspires to. “I absolutely love my costume. It makes me wish that we dressed like that, so elegantly, nowadays,” she said. “I love working with Emilio Sosa.”

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