Raja Feather Kelly was in college when he saw the 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon.” At that point, he had a lot of catching up to do. Popular culture — an important element in his work, whether he embraces or eviscerates it — evaded him while he was growing up.
He found the film, inspired by a real-life bank robbery, incredible. And inspiring. “You’re like, Whoa, all of this happened in one night,” Kelly said in a recent interview. “It felt like theater to me. It’s in one place. There’s no music. And the movie itself feels like a documentary — it feels super real.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Kelly drew acclaim as an Off Broadway choreographer in plays like “Fairview” and “A Strange Loop,” and was in the process of developing a retelling of “Dog Day Afternoon.” In the film, Sonny (Al Pacino’s character) needs money to pay for gender confirmation surgery for his partner, Leon (Chris Sarandon).
Kelly, who grew up in Fort Hood, Texas, before moving to Long Branch, N.J., connected with the character of Leon. His parents were divorced; he didn’t know his father. He was bullied, and even in his dance universe, he felt separate and stuck as the only boy, once again on the outside. For Kelly, now 34, the film is not only a lesson in storytelling, it’s also a display of love — queer love, at that. What if, he thought, “Dog Day Afternoon” could be re-created from Leon’s perspective?
“I was captivated by the performance and also very upset by it,” Kelly said, “because what’s interesting is that it seems that this whole movie is about this character, or hinges on this character’s need. But Leon is only in the film for four minutes.”
Leon was based on Elizabeth Debbie Eden, a trans woman who was depicted as a man in the film. For “Wednesday,” Kelly’s multilayered, conceptual, sharply funny and visually arresting retelling, he has immersed himself in Eden’s life. Kelly breaks apart “Dog Day Afternoon” and puts it back together as a meditation on his connection with Eden, whom he sees as being erased from popular culture. He can relate. The new show functions as a live stage speculative documentary, or, as he said, “a documentary of our process.”
The production opens on Wednesday at New York Live Arts, where Kelly was the 2019-20 Randjelović/Stryker resident commissioned artist. Its premiere was postponed by a year because of the pandemic, but Kelly and his group continued working on it. Drama ensued within his company, the feath3r theory — Kelly called it a revolt. He started with a cast of seven, which grew to 18; in the end, only seven remained.
The core question in “Wednesday” is relevant to the turmoil: Who has the right to tell anyone’s story? There were times during the process when Kelly was told that he didn’t have the right to tell Eden’s — including by some of his dancers. He said, “They’re like, ‘This is a white trans woman and you’re a queer Black man. It’s not your story to tell.’”
But it’s Kelly’s story, too, as well as that of the dancers, in a way. There are moments in “Wednesday” when the cast interjects confessionals from the performers about what they’re doing while they’re doing it. “I would never rob a bank,” one says. “But I would certainly let someone rob a bank for me.” The kicker: “It’s very Madonna, Blond Ambition — but I’m just trying to figure out the difference between a 1972 bank robbery and a 2021 GoFundMe.”
Kelly can be scathing and funny at once. Bill T. Jones, the artistic director of Live Arts, has gotten to know him well; as part of his residency, Kelly requested periodic talks with Jones. “I ask him, ‘Why do you feel you’re a dance artist?’” Jones said. “‘Do you have loyalty to dance as a form?’ And he has a way of answering those things as, ‘Why not?’ In a way, it comes out to be something about how all theater has certain things in common and all theater can be used as a certain kind of tool. And that’s why I find it fascinating to see what his projects are. He is really thinking very freely about them.”
Ultimately, Kelly said, he knows his attempt to tell Eden’s story will be a failure. “That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to do it,” he said. “That I shouldn’t experience the humanity that it is to take someone else’s perspective to mind. And that that idea is bigger than me. And that idea is bigger than Eden. And if we employ that to our process, it’s bigger than the show.”
And the show looks impressive, too. Kelly loves to saturate a space with color; “Wednesday,” with its red columns and hanging silver balls, features a modular set by You-Shin Chen “that allows us to be,” Kelly said, “in a bank, rehearsal studio, cabaret club, queer fantasia.”
Janet Wong, the associate artistic director of Live Arts, admires how Kelly’s work is “so highly produced in a world of scarcity,” she said.
And, she noted with something like awe, he even managed to create new work during the pandemic: “Hysteria (Ugly Part 2).” Performed in the lobby at Live Arts in April, with small crowds watching from the sidewalk, it further explored the effect of pop culture on queer Black identity. “He got a seven-city tour out of that,” Wong said. “During Covid. He even took it to Vienna. Hopefully, ‘Wednesday’ propels him to the next part of his career.”
Kelly has more plans related to “Wednesday,” including an actual documentary, called “Any Given Wednesday,” which follows the rise, fall and rise again of his company. It will be directed by Kelly and Laura Snow, his video collaborator; they met as students at Connecticut College. Snow, also the director of media at New York City Ballet, has been filming Kelly’s company since 2012.
During the pandemic, when Kelly and Snow were wondering what the future of the company would be, or if it even had one, they realized Snow had “hard drives and hard drives of footage” that they could study to find out: “How did we wind up in this moment?”
The process helped Kelly to bring the company together again — and “to be its leader and admit when I’m wrong,” he said. “How do you ask people to enter a process that is going to hold up a mirror to them, and then ask them to do that to an audience and not have an extreme desire to take care of them as people?”
Something else revealed itself in the process: what the feath3r theory stands for. While the “3” refers to dance, theater and media, “feather” has to do with the idea of “how people come together and why they fall apart or separate,” Kelly said, “which is what feathers do.”
That he was able to mend his feather was crucial. To him, having a company allows his ideas to grow. “I don’t think that I can do what I do otherwise,” he said. “I learn how to be an experimental artist by having a company. And I take risks because of what we build with our company. I don’t think we would have been able to recover, in terms of the pandemic, in terms of the revolt, in terms of being excited about this story that continues to turn in on itself — without it.”