If Andy Warhol Were Alive Today He Would’ve Created the Facebook…Sorry Zuckerberg.
I met Raja Feather Kelly, Artistic Director and mastermind behind the FEATH3R THEORY, in a bustling coffee shop in Prospect Heights. He was a few minutes late, so I messaged him to tell him I had snagged a table towards the front. His reply: “Oh, that was today?” And as the true performer that he is, allowed enough time to pass for me to question whether I had messed up the interview time, before following up with, “Just kidding, I’m around the corner.”
This perfectly sums up Kelly. His ability to play with timing and dangle delicious tidbits of information in front of his audience in order to sit back and watch the reaction is central to his new piece entitled, ‘Color Me, Warhol.’ When I ask how this piece, deeply influenced by Andy Warhol, is similar to his last piece ‘Drella,’ which centered around Kelly playing Andy Warhol in drag, he responds: “How does it not differ?”
Above all, this new piece started with only a morsel of information. A few lines from the book ‘On the Line’ that mentioned that Andy Warhol was going to create his own version of ‘A Chorus Line.’ Kelly explained that ‘A Chorus Line’ is the embodiment of Andy Warhol’s concept of 15 minutes of fame. “This idea of I’ll do anything to be in the background … this idea of 15 minutes of fame is a disease.”
“Andy Warhol’s work has this bait and switch quality to it,” Kelly continues, “If Andy Warhol were alive today he would’ve created the Facebook … sorry Zuckerberg but Warhol would’ve created it."
There's The Dream Piece and Then the Piece That Gets Created.
“My process is a lot of negotiating,” Kelly says.
His process to get to this point of execution has been beautifully tedious and methodical.
“I want to know Warhol's version [of A Chorus Line]. Okay, well, he doesn't have an actual version,” Kelly continues, “so you have to do enough research to figure out what you think Warhol would’ve done.”
“But that's not actually the show I want to do,” Kelly adds, “the show I want to do is a recreation of a show that he would have done so now I have to write a second show. And then I have to figure out where they intersect.”
Intentionality and precision permeates throughout Kelly’s work. It is clear that he is a research-driven creator, attacking everything from choreography to lighting with a purpose comparable to a mathematician cracking a code.
‘Color Me, Warhol’ promises to be a product of this purpose-focused process. The production consists of 24 people, includes what he calls a lighting origamist and hails filmmaker Laura ‘Lou’ Snow as co-Director, who is tasked with figuring out how to represent the past and the future without saying so.
This piece promises to be more theatrical than previous pieces. “I’ve been itching for theater…sometimes the body doesn’t say enough or the choreography gets in the way.”
“A lot of technology, video footage, montages … very Americana 2015 … you could probably watch this show on your phone … I want to create a saturating experience,” Kelly adds.
The influence and use of technology in the piece is already evident as Kelly began a social media campaign 100 days prior to the premiere.
“Andy understood that the show starts when you start talking about it,” Kelly says, “I like the idea of a campaign ... 100 days of Warhol ... a campaign on Instagram where we produce an image that gives away content.”
But Kelly warns, that like the bait and switch quality that Warhol’s work exudes, “When they [the audience] get to the show things may or may not connect.” “So vogue-ing to bluegrass may or may not be in the show but why does it matter?”
Kelly explains his rationale for the campaign and a desire to lengthen the impact that dance pieces have on their audience. “It’s like a trailer. We see it, we get really excited, we watch it and it has this longevity. 50 Shades of Grey; we see the movie we have that experience but there’s a book, then there's a trailer then there's a movie, then there’s Disney porn. There's this longevity that's created.”
Kelly adds, “In my small little field of post modern dance we don't have that. So how can I create this longevity for something that would be 3 nights?”
Luckily, they get 6 performances this time.
See The World Through a Warholian Lense.
“I need to figure out what my answer to this is.”
This was Kelly’s answer to my question of where his obsession with Andy Warhol comes from.
“What I remember and what I feel is being a child and sitting in front of the TV and watching starlets. I want to be Selena. And really what that meant was I want to be Jennifer Lopez being Selena. I don't know who the fuck Selena is. I know who Jennifer Lopez is being Selena. That started in 1995 … To me that's so very clear: you want to be people being people. People pretending to be the more famous people. I felt like Jennifer Lopez, like I could have auditioned against her and gotten the job.”
Kelly continues, “Then I actually had an issue with Andy Warhol … everyone had something to say about him and I felt like "what did he do? He didn't really do anything ... but then I realize that no kind of art experience that I have had in my life has been without the influence of Warhol … then I felt like I fell in love with him.”
The magic that Warhol’s work helps create in Kelly’s pieces can be quickly distilled down to the iconic Coca Cola can. “He [Andy Warhol] understands how I feel. When I read about his philosophy behind the Coca Cola can ... the poor guy in Long Branch, N.J., i.e. me, can drink a Coca Cola, and Jackie O. also drinks a Coca Cola ... so that poor guy feels like he's Jackie O. and Jackie O., well she doesn’t feel poor but she feels accessible.”
“That to me felt real. I can be pretty. I can draw on a mole and be pretty. I can do my hair differently and feel pretty. Andy Warhol says I can do that now so I'm gonna,” Kelly says.
I'm Like a Pop Culture Life Coach.
“First and foremost, I want them to walk away having experienced something they've never experienced before,” Kelly responds when asked what he wants the audience to get from ‘Color Me, Warhol.’
Kelly adds, “I'm slightly tugging for people to pay a little bit more attention to how they participate in pop culture. I don't think we realize how much we play a role in pop culture and how we're each affected by it. “
He is quick to add that he is not advocating for caution when it comes to pop culture, just awareness.
He references a former MasterChef contestant who recently committed suicide. He explains that the contestant was sworn to secrecy after the show wrapped up filming. “He had the variables for an American dream ... a rags to riches story.” He adds that reports stated that the way the contestant carried himself when he returned to his hometown made his family and community feel like he had won.
“They put him up on this pedestal,” Kelly continues, “and everyone is just waiting for the episode to air so they can continue with their accolades and two weeks before it was supposed to air, he killed himself.”
“They wouldn't have it any other way. They [the community] needed that hero because that's what we perpetuate. If someone else can do it then so can I, as opposed to everyone can do it.”
“I come from a pretty difficult background,” Kelly notes, “where I'm not interested in being anybody's hero. I'm just interested in doing what I love and I'm interested in everyone else doing that as well.”
Kelly circles back, “What's this thing? If you think about it, Warhol’s exploiting these people's lives. He started reality TV. Exploiting the personal in the public.”
Kelly likens ‘Color Me, Warhol’ to this concept of exploiting the personal in the public. “In ‘A Chorus Line’ these people put their lives on the line to be in the background!”
So, are we all just slaves to fame? Go find out when Color Me, Warhol premieres April 10th!
Also in true Raja Feather Kelly fashion, look out for a solo piece entitled “Who's Afraid of Andy Warhol” in 2017. He says it will likely be his last piece in his Andy Warhol series. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Kelly doesn’t sleep much.
April 10-11, 17-18, 24-25 | 7pm | Dixon Place | New York
COLOR ME, WARHOL is the latest installment of an ongoing series jump-started by Raja Feather Kelly’s interest in Andy Warhol, pop culture, and identity. In the previous works inspired by the late American pop icon, Kelly (with support of his ensemble THE FEATH3R THEORY) has successfully carved out a niche for himself as an artist obsessed with seeing the world through a Warholian lens and “regurgitating” it into what he calls “Artsploitations.” His new work is surreal and radical dance-theater, plundering the illusions of today’s popular culture, the impending social media war, and that imaginary line separating performers and audience. Co-directed by filmmaker Lou Snow, COLOR ME, WARHOL completes Andy Warhol’s vision of Richard Attenborough & Michael Bennet’s 1985 movie-musical classic A CHORUS LINE.
Story by: Daniella Henry