What They’re Wearing: Costume Designer Susan Tsu Outfits ‘Young Americans’ at the Public


Susan Tsu, the award-winning costume designer and Carnegie Mellon professor, had just administered a final exam when her face popped up in close-up, a Zoom call. You could hear the students bustling in the background.

They have much to learn from Tsu, who has designed for theater, opera and television worldwide, as well as theaters throughout Pittsburgh. 

Her current work, for Lauren Yee’s Young Americans, involves a co-production about cross-country trips, 20 years apart, that appeared first on Portland Center Stage and has traveled to Pittsburgh Public Theater, where it opens on April 29.

Jenny and Joe (Marielle Young and Danny Bernardo) are a couple heading to their new home in Portland in Young Americans. (Courtesy of Portland Center Stage)

The heartfelt comedy finds Joe and Jenny (Danny Bernardo and Marielle Young), a newly engaged immigrant couple, on a car ride to their new home in Portland, and then Joe taking their daughter, Lucy (Sammy Rat Rios), to college 20 years later. The play “pieces together their bittersweet family history … and explores what home and belonging truly mean — and the lengths we will go to for the people we love.”

How much work goes into outfitting two people in a car? The same as any other characters, for Susan Tsu. It starts with the script, of course, but the leather hat, or the one that says “WE ARE ON NATIVE LAND,” those are all choices based on creating a character from the ground up.

“The beginning was the most interesting because [director Desdemona Chiang] and I were talking about, well, what do we think that this story should focus on? You know, should it be an Asian story? Is it something else? And with the two of us being Asian, and, and Lauren, you know, as well, we couldn’t help but think about our own experiences as Asian Americans. It was also fascinating to think about the kind of range of people that Desdemona and the folks Portland were thinking about”

In Portland, she said, there is a large Vietnamese population and, at one time, there was a big Chinatown area that is now “totally run down.” They factored in the Filipino community as well, “and I found myself researching all of them,” said Tsu, a Chinese American who, like the travelers in Young Americans, saw the United States by visiting iconic places with her parents.

“The road trip is a fantastic metaphor for an immigrant journey, in terms of what you find is important. And the other sort of wonderful surprise in all of this is that it’s not just Lauren who is writing about Asian road-trip stories. There are several other Asian playwrights who are writing about it,” Tsu said. “And I had the same experience as she is talking about, of my parents showing me the United States, saying, ‘This is where you live. Let’s go to the Grand Canyon this year. We’ll go to Florida next year. We’ll look at Yellowstone Park …”

Danny Bernardo as Joe and Sammy Rat Rios as Lucy in Lauren Yee’s Young Americans, which traveled from Portland to Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Those experiences and Tsu’s research all informed her choices for the three characters.

At first glance, the thought was about how they saw their own fathers, “in sort of little car-coat type jackets, glasses and, you know, dad pants.”

She added that the style was “maybe about 20 years behind,” but she found the folks at Portland Center Stage were more interested in “what it might be like to be the younger generation, living with the generation of people who came here and raised us and had their sets of dreams that have affected our dreams, whether we went with our dreams or went against their dreams.”

As Joe, Bernardo plays dual roles, 20 years apart, a challenge for any designer.

“You almost have to design in Haiku, when the physical attributes of the show are such that we cannot just hold it up, but we need to somehow make him look different. So the only differences between young and old Joe are that young Joe doesn’t have glasses, old Joe has glasses and a jacket – young Joe’s a little spunkier. [She laughs.] So I looked at a bunch of different things: Should he have shorts on? What kind of guy is he?  Does he fancy himself kind of cool, but he misses.”

You might notice that take shape in mismatched or ill-fitting clothes, but Joe does have that one good outfit that he puts on for a date – more American businessman than husband/dad driving on a long trip.

Tsu further fleshed out Joe’s look by researching teachers at Portland State University. He also is a bird-watcher, so Tsu checked out the Audubon Society and found looks that were “sort of wonderful, earthy, outdoorsy and comfortable in themselves.”

That also sparked an idea from her own closet – a favorite REI cap with the words: “YOU ARE ON NATIVE LAND.” 

Another consideration was the intimacy of the Portland theater vs. the high-ceilinged thrust stage of the Public’s O’Reilly Theater.

While the backdrops are the same – mostly sky – the Pittsburgh theater allowed her to add something she had put aside in Portland.

“There is enough of a shift here that I’ve been able to have Jenny wear a cap, which I call her Yoko Ono leather cap,” Tsu said. “That I’m very, very happy about, because it’s a little tweak on my part, to show that Jenny has a kind of artistry to her and a kind of individuality to her. Without that, you can read her costumes in different ways, but it’s like one seismic moment that I’ve been able to get back into the show at the Public because the lighting angles were just different enough that we could see her face a little better.”

Tsu relishes the idea of being first to the draw with new works, and Pittsburgh affords plenty of opportunities for a designer and educator.

“I love doing new work,” she said. “I’ve had frequent opportunities to be the first one to take a look at it and make it into something. [The original] Godspell was a new work, you know? Travels of Angelica was a new work. We had playwrights in residence when I was the principal costume designer at the Milwaukee Rep. It’s something I enjoy a lot, and of course it’s wonderful, along with the Public, to have City Theatre here in town, and Quantum Theatre, too. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

While a path to understanding characters through costuming is at the heart of what she does, Tsu doesn’t want anyone to lose sight of the play itself. If you are going to Young Americans, check out the clothes, of course, and be prepared to laugh.

The road-trip tale “is wonderfully telling, but also, it is riotously funny,” Tsu said. “I advise folks to come and enjoy themselves.”

“Young Americans,” a co-production of Portland Center Stage and Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through May 14. Tickets and details: visit https://ppt.org/production/78803/young-americans or call 412-316-1600.

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  1. review: 'Young Americans' Tells Immigrant Family's Story Across Time and Miles

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