One of the greatest caravans to ever cross the Sahara was led by Mansa Musa, the legendary ruler of the vast West African empire of Mali. In 1324 Musa embarked on a hajj, a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, traveling with an entourage that included 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 servants and 100 camel loads of pure gold. Musa is believed to have been the richest person in history, even by today’s standards.
Last fall, when costume designer Sanja Manakoski was charged with creating a 21st-century version of Don Quixote’s suit of armor for the Glencoe, Ill.-based Writers Theatre’s production of Quixote: On the Conquest of Self, she turned to the knight errant himself for inspiration.
“Our Don Quixote is no regular knight,” explains Manakoski ’17 MFA, who recently earned a master’s degree in stage costume design. “For us it was important to visually paint his spirit into the costume. Quixote makes himself a knight by the strength of his own imagination. The same imaginative transformation happened in our creation of his costume.”
Manakoski envisioned that the resourceful knight would have put together his suit of armor with things he came across during his journey. So she and her assistant used a grab bag of found objects, old and new, to outfit him on his quest: pieces of old tires, coins, medals, pop-tops, flattened beer cans and a pendant with a photo of Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea.
“While some people would see these items as garbage, Quixote proudly wears his own creation,” says Manakoski. “He sees what other people are unable to. For example, if he saw a piece of old tire, he would grab it and use it as protection on his elbow. All the materials we chose are there to serve and protect him on his journey.”
They also protected the actor who played Quixote, Cuban-born Northwestern theater professor Henry Godinez. Due to the strenuous demands of the role, Mexican director (and co-playwright, with Mónica Hoth) Claudio Valdés Kuri asked Godinez to take acrobatics classes to prepare for the grueling leaps, somersaults and rolls in the production.
Manakoski and her team had to design the armor to allow Godinez maximum flexibility for his acrobatic movements and contortions. So they made silicone molds that could be painted to look like metal but were lightweight.
“Quixote still lives,” says Manakoski, “through inspiring us to design this costume 400 years after Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra created him. This wonderful play gives us a fresh, innovative and contemporary take on the most famous knight errant in the world.”