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For August Wilson's wife, travel, art and design have been life-long pursuits

Tuesday, June 25, 1996

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

In this town, everyone recognizes August," said Constanza Romero with an expansive smile. It's not like that in Seattle, where she and husband August Wilson have lived since their 1994 marriage.

You didn't get any points for a Wilson-spotting in the 10 days before the June 14 Pittsburgh Public Theater opening of "Jitney."

Fresh from rooting for his "Seven Guitars" at the Tony Awards, the playwright was to be seen doing interviews, strolling through the Arts Festival, noshing on the North Side.

Perhaps you noted the vivacious woman with him - brown hair, round face, lively eyes and that easily ignited smile.

A youthful 38, Romero packs lots of experience within that cheery exterior. An artist and theater designer, she and Wilson met when her Yale Drama School teachers assigned her to design costumes for his new play, "The Piano Lesson."

That set her off on a long journey with the play to its 1990 arrival on Broadway, and on a longer journey with its playwright, leading to "Seven Guitars" (costumes by Romero) and "Jitney," then back to Seattle.

Travel has been a constant in Romero's life. She paused at a North Side restaurant to sketch her past.

It began in Bogota, Colombia. Her father was a commercial artist and photographer - "I posed for baby food commercials, all kinds of things" - who became an art teacher at the national university and is now retired.

Her mother was an American from Connecticut, a college teacher of linguistics, who founded a school in Colombia. "They met at a Halloween party, she dressed as a witch, he as a spaceman."

As she said that, it struck Romero: "So costumes entered my life early!" Her parents divorced in 1969, when she was 11. With her mother, younger sister and two younger brothers, she moved to Fresno, Calif., where her mother had relatives and a teaching job.

Until then, Romero had spoken Spanish, but she learned English quickly, as children do. Though today she is fully American, she retains a wisp of an accent, less on individual words than hovering softly on the edge of phrases. A simultaneous upheaval was her change in education. In Colombia, she had attended an all-girls Catholic school; now, there was public school, and boys.

"You grow up with certain rules," she said, "then they change the rules. I think kids' lives are tough, with a lot of pain." The greatest upheaval followed: In 1972, her mother died of breast cancer.

The four children went to live with a maternal aunt and uncle near Fresno, "the most generous, caring people I've known in my life." Romero was then 15. "My little brothers think of them as parents. They had more childhood."

Soon, Romero began an educational journey that took her to six schools in four countries on three continents.

"I guess I always knew I was going to be an artist," she recalled. There was her father's example, but also her aunt, who worked in batik.

"Clothes have always interested me." In 1976, Romero entered the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland to study textile design. But she was attracted more to live drawing. After a year, she left to pursue another agenda, traveling through Central America and returning to Colombia to live with her father for six months.

Her eyes flash as she describes this as the first of a series of adventures. 'It was a rite of passage."

In Bogota, her rusty Spanish revived, and she studied art. An art teacher got her involved in a movie, playing a martyred saint. "It was very Felliniesque, an art film without any budget. We made all the incredible costumes ourselves." What she especially liked was the group effort, "everyone giving their best."

Then back to the United States, to the University of California at Fresno, where she studied art and stayed a whole year and a half. That included a semester in an intense integrated science course - anthropology, biology and geology, complete with field trips to the Grand Canyon and Baja California.

Again, it was the group experience that impressed. Romero's next stop was Florence, Italy, to study art - "another interesting year!" Italian came easily to her and she suffered the usual pangs of cultural self-revulsion - "I thought Americans were the most obnoxious tourists in the world until I saw Italians in Mexico."

Then came two years in Amsterdam, Holland, supporting herself by teaching Spanish. 'That's where I first saw theater. It was so incredible, design-wise. It came to me like a light bulb that I wanted to study theater design, sets and costumes."

So she returned to the University of California at Santa Cruz. The theater department gave her many opportunities: "I was focused, older; I got to design a lot of big productions." With her 1985 degree finally in hand, she applied to the best graduate schools of theater design and chose Yale.

"I was impressed with the Gothic campus. My mother's father had gone to Yale - I even had a dream where my mother told me to go to Yale." It was a heady, intense three years. "I wouldn't ever do it again, but it was wonderful. Ming Cho Lee and Jane Greenwood were fantastic teachers. I made friends for life."

Among the more fortuitous events, in her final year (1987) she was assigned to the Yale Repertory Theatre's "Piano Lesson." So she met its author. She continued to do the costumes through its many regional theater productions, Broadway, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, the tour (which played in Pittsburgh in 1992) and a post-tour production in Seattle.

After graduation, she lived in New York and "took anything I could get." Though she studied both sets and costumes, her work has been with the latter, which she prefers. "I enjoy working hands-on - it's a more organic process. There's room for accident. You can have a brilliant idea one day and implement it the next."

Since Yale, she's designed all over, including the Clarence Brown Theater in Tennessee, Emory College in Atlanta, the "Phantom Tollbooth" for New York's Acting Company, the Milwaukee Repertory (five shows in four years) and several Seattle theaters.

Recently, she did a full medieval "Richard II" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival ("it was humongous, with lots of regalia"). She's done two other Wilson plays - "Ma Rainey" in Rochester, N.Y., and "Fences" in Milwaukee - and, most notably, all five productions of "Seven Guitars," now on Broadway.

In her work, she sees traces of her cultural ambivalence. Her mother came from a restrained, New England tradition, while Colombia means exuberance and color. "In my father's paintings, there's such use of color!" Her research for "Piano Lesson," set in 1936, took her to "WPA photographs and anything I could get hold of. It's hard to research black life in the '30s and '40s."

She also used Sears and Roebuck catalogues. "You need detail and style - what they wore and how they wore it." For "Seven Guitars," set in 1948, she relied on pictures of musicians of the '40s. "And you sometimes see women sitting at the side. The men are like roosters. They outshine the women. I wanted the color and drama of their wear."

Now, back in Seattle after the long travail of "Seven Guitars," she has a few design jobs ahead. "But I'd like to get back to my own art, to tap into my private language of painting."

She works in portraiture - not realistic. "I've been working for a long time on a portrait of my (Colombian) grandmother - my memory of her, very mythological." The tug of two nations and languages continues. "I think it gives you a lot of insight."



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