Raja Feather Kelly—A Staged Documentary Performance Inspired by Dog Day Afternoon

The 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon was one of the first feature films to center on a gay man as a protagonist. Yet upon researching the narrative, artist Raja Feather Kelly discovered that the film’s main character was based on a real-life trans woman, Liz Eden. Over the past several years, Kelly has been developing his Creative Capital Project, WEDNESDAY, is a queer fantasia that explores the real-life story of Liz Eden, as well as the ethical and political question of who gets to tell whose story. The performance features Kelly’s dance company, the feath3r theory, as they create a live, staged documentary. WEDNESDAY premieres at New York Live Arts December 1-10, 2021.

We spoke to Raja Feather Kelly about Liz Eden, translating documentary into dance performance, and the difficult question of how one tells the story of another.

Alex—Tell me about WEDNESDAY.

Raja Feather Kelly—WEDNESDAY is a dance theater work that features seven performers who are trying to uncover the real-life story behind the movie Dog Day Afternoon. They create a documentary onstage of the process of trying to retell Dog Day Afternoon from the perspective of Leon in the film, who is a character based on real-life trans woman Elizabeth Debbie Eden.

Alex—Will you describe the  film Dog Day Afternoon and what interested you about it?

Raja—Dog Day Afternoon was created in 1975 based off of a Time magazine article, “The Boys in the Bank.” In the movie, Al Pacino plays the character of a man named Sonny Wojtowicz who decides he’s going to rob a bank. No one can understand why he is doing it. People speculate that he has ties to the mob and has to pay off a debt, or maybe he’s doing it for his partner. In the film, it’s his partner’s birthday and his partner wants to have a confirmation surgery. The movie takes place in the bank for 14 hours, and shows you what happens to Al Pacino’s character.

For me particularly, I was excited because there is this character in the movie played by Chris Sarandon, and he’s depicted in the movie as a gay man. I thought it was exciting to see a gay person in a film. As I got more information about it though, it turned out that the real life character was actually a trans woman. So that turned our documentary from one thing to another.

Alex—It’s such an interesting concept. Are you calling it a play?

Raja—I’m calling it a staged documentary.

Alex—What will audiences see?

Raja—They will see a company of individuals try to put this story back together. It’s a series of reenactments, a series of dance sequences, and a series of conversations that have actually happened.

Alex—What is your process for approaching a project like as a performer  working with collaborators?

Raja—I think of myself as an experimentalist and a devised theater-maker. My medium for creating devised theater is dance and movement. So, there’s a lot of movement that goes into my creation of theater—I make theater by creating dance and movement. 

Performance Still from Raja Feather Kelly's Creative Capital Project, WEDNESDAY

Performance Still from Raja Feather Kelly’s Creative Capital Project, WEDNESDAY.

This particular language of theater, or the language of this show, is the language of documentary. So, in a lot of ways I’ve been studying documentary: what’s the formula and pace of documentaries, how do they work, can I translate that onto the stage? That sort of becomes the process, which is exciting to me.

We’re working as a company in translation. How do we translate language and devices in one field—in this instance documentary—and turn them into a language that makes sense for live performance or on the stage?

Alex—Did you interview any documentarians?

Raja—There’s a documentarian that’s actually a part of our company, named Laura Snow. She’s the person I’ve actually worked with for the longest amount of time in my life. We met in college in 2005 and started collaborating then, and made dances and films together. We studied abroad in Australia together. I took a performance track after I graduated, and started a company and toured as a dancer, and she went to study documentary film. We’ve collaborated on all of my projects since. So, I had a natural consultant since she’s part of the company. 

Using her contacts and resources, I learned even more about documentary and play a little bit. We’ve been documenting our company since we started in 2009, so there’s always been an interest, and we’ve used that to figure some things out about ourselves through that.

Alex—As you studied the character Liz Eden, what have you learned and what drove the piece?

Raja—Liz Eden is a real person, and the character’s name is Leon, played by Chris Sarandon. What I learned was that this was a real person’s life. What was interesting to me was why there isn’t more of her in the film since so much of the story hinges on her and who she was and her relationship to Sonny. It upset me in many ways that her story was erased from this movie. 

When I realized that it was a real story, in an attempt to find as much information about her as possible, it became devastating to me that so much of her story was missing. It got me interested in the idea of theater and storytelling in general. Her story is not my story in any way, and yet I have this connection to it. A huge question that came out of all of this is asking who gets to tell whose story? Is it fair for me to tell her story? Am I actually telling her story, or am I telling my story and she’s a character in my story? Or is it her story and am I a character in her story?

I’m not performing in the work. The cast is a group of people who are telling my story, and it becomes their story. Because it’s a documentary, all of the people that intersect with us or learn about the show or engage with it, in some ways it becomes their story. That question continues to motivate us to move forward: whose story is it now? Who gets to tell the story?

The idea of who gets to tell whose story is a much-needed conversation in our field, especially as we talk about wanting to give more space and access to stories…. This work interrogates that desire as much as it is celebrating that need.

Alex—The performance is premiering at  New York Live Arts as a commissioned piece, right?

Raja—Before Creative Capital, there was really no one that was interested in this work. For a downtown dance theater artist it’s very difficult for people to buy ideas that haven’t been done before, or to be curious about ideas that seem so different. I remember right after receiving the Creative Capital Award, I had a meeting with New York Live Arts about what I was working on. They offered me this residency there called the Randjelović/Stryker Resident Commissioned Artist program. 

It’s a two-year residency there. I did that and got to really develop the piece for two years knowing that they would give it developmental support and commissioning support meaning they would present the show.

It’s one of the biggest and most comprehensive residencies a choreographer can receive. We were able to have a home for the work. That’s so important—to know where it’s going to be, to be able to plan and work with people as you are building it, knowing it’s going to take three or four different turns before it lands on the final performance. Having a residency like that means you can continue to allow those things to inform and not deter the work.  The residency made it incredibly comprehensive.

Alex—How do you define success for this project, or what do you hope the audience walks away with?

Raja—I don’t know. I think I’m quite scared because the work is controversial. The idea of who gets to tell whose story is a much-needed conversation in our field, especially as we talk about wanting to give more space and access to stories from Black artists, artists of color, stories from Indigenous artists, and stories from the LGBTQIA community. This work interrogates that desire as much as it is celebrating that need. So it engages with a lot of important questions people in our field are asking. I think I boil those questions down to who gets to tell whose story?

I think success would be for people leaning into that conversation, or looking at a way into this question for better or for worse. I think it would be a marker of success to create a piece of art about that that hopefully continues the conversation.

Alex—Popular media—especially movies—can often change how people see things. Dog Day Afternoon, for example, framed significant tensions in the 1970s over authority, the rule of law, and sexuality. How do you navigate this role of popular media, and how do you see the cultural impact of the work you make?

Raja—Another question that has been incredibly important to me is whether we make culture or culture makes us? I study popular culture on purpose because I wonder how much of it is telling me what to do and how to look like I’m doing something. Then, I’m also a culture-maker, so how much am I participating in the same thing to tell others what to do. It’s a cycle that feeds people and leads people and offers people information. 

I guess I take it as both a responsibility to be thoughtful about what I’m crafting, but also to be deeply interested in interrogating what I’m watching. I hope that people will do the same thing when they see my process for what I am making that they know that I have just as much integrity in how I create it and not just what I create.

Alex—You mentioned it before, but can you talk about how Creative Capital was helpful?

Raja—This project is deeply important to me. Like I said I think it’s a much needed conversation. I’ve been thinking about this project since 2015. It wasn’t until 2018 when Creative Capital gave me a bode of confidence by saying, yes we think you should do that. That is a currency in our field. When someone says “yes,” other people say “great!” They see that someone else sees the potential and promise in this, not just the project but also the artist.

I’ve had a lot of presenters and institutions say that my work is too ambitious or it seems impossible. For Creative Capital to say we support this artist, or this is an artist to look out for. People started to notice my work. That’s a launching pad for a career, but also a responsibility. That is huge for an artist, especially for someone like myself who straddles dance, theater, the interdisciplinary, and I make big, impossible work.

Read more about and purchase tickets to see WEDNESDAY by Raja Feather Kelly at New York Live Arts.