An Unfiltered Description of UGLY at Bushwick Starr

Photo by Maria Baranova

Bushwick Starr opened its 2018-19 season this past weekend with the premiere of a solo work by Raja Feather Kelly titled Ugly. The run was short (Sept. 5-9), so the following may serve as a guide to those who couldn’t make it; an unfiltered description of one person’s gaze in a sweltering room.

As audience enters the darkened space, they encounter Kelly alternatively prowling and lounging inside a box-like container. Occasionally a very bright yellow light washes over the audience and stage, as though a delivery truck is making a u-turn somewhere inside of the theater. It seems like everyone is there – the buzz of being surrounded by the luminescent other – it feels like an opening, even though the official “opening” is the day after this one.

The piece begins as Kelly moves through a set of contained choreographic poses and small gestures. Sound punctuates and complicates, composed of a mashing of pop songs (only a few lines of each at most, including for a moment “Skid Row (Downtown)” from Little Shop of Horrors, which Kelly briefly lip syncs to before shrugging, as if to say, I really don’t know what that’s doing here, or maybe, Isn’t it weird how you never really thought the words to that song were racist until now?) There is also crashing thunder and strobes of flashing lights. Kelly remains inside the box throughout the section. Is he contained? Trapped? Imprisoned? There is an animal quality to the containment, but also a knowingness. This, whatever this is, is at least partially self-imposed.

Interior transitions inside the box are indicated by Kelly taking a cassette tape out of a small cassette player, flipping it, reinserting it, and slamming the cover shut. There are moments of intense club-dance-style movement lit with heavy strobing effect. There is a singular moment when we can only see Kelly’s legs, dangling, as he has pulled his head and torso out of sight. On the one hand, it’s just a pull-up. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to immediately leap to the most terrible equivalence that that particular image is often used to evoke – the black body, suspended, hanging.

During a blackout, the lights come back and Kelly isn’t there anymore. Once the lights come up a bit more, he can be found on a ledge all the way stage left, up against a wall. The choreography shifts into a more virtuosic dance-driven mode. Kelly dances, up against a wall. The music is different, classical, heightened. The lights are more steady. Near the end of his dance, he silently wails.

Now he’s back in the box again. Things seem mostly the same as before, but we’re progressing. Now we have spoken text to add into the equation. For awhile, he does yoga, during which a female yoga instructors voice guides him, alternately soothing and enraged. The enragement gives voice to our collective political anxieties and evokes some knowing laughter. It is, in my view, the easiest portion of the evening to consume but at the cost of being more on-the-nose and less mysterious than the content that surrounds it. Post-yoga, a microphone is lowered into the box, and Kelly speaks. It’s a language full of alienation, literally – in a silky raw voice, Kelly articulates, among other things, our desire for aliens, to consume made-up others, so long as they’re not ourselves. All the time, his own make up runs over his body, turning it slick and painted.

The lights grow hot. The room grows hot. So hot. There is no air conditioning and outside the temperature had only fallen into the mid 80’s. One could see the air conditioner in the window behind a grating and LED lights, and so one could only assume the non-use of it was intentional. Perhaps it would have dissipated the haze, ever present in the room. At any rate, we share our sweat, our humidity, our heat. We weather it, as Kelly does inside the box. If self-imposed, this seems now like an over-exposure, an image held up to a heat source until it starts to melt.

At last, Kelly is out of the box again. He is now stage right. There are two doors, one that leads to the outside (please god open that door, let some air in to this room) and another that leads to back stage. The most heavily danced portion of the performance takes place between these two doors and the box, with Kelly occasionally working his way close to the audience but holding up one finger as to say, Just one second, I’ll be with you in just a minute, before leaping away. Both doors are opened, just momentarily. We can almost get a rush of the outside, but he closes them too soon. He returns to the box and stands on a small circular cut-out which spins him, slowly revolving, now mostly frozen, turning and turning again until the audience applauds and exits the room.

In various promotional materials and listings surrounding Ugly, the piece is described as “(Kelly’s) response to the dearth of nuanced black queer subjectivity in the mainstream.” The choice of the word subjectivity, one definition of which is “the quality of existing in someone’s mind rather than the external world,” seems to add a subcontext to the questions the performance raises (in particular, the varying extent to which the work should be read as interior acting on exterior, or vice versa), especially in concert with a recent New York Times article, Kelly’s articulation that he is creating and inhabiting the role of a “yellow glamour alien” in a “Black Queer Zoo.” This additional information proves useful on the back end, allowing the allocation of additional meaning to certain moments throughout the performance, but ultimately, the piece works with or without it.

Late in the work, while in the box/zoo, Kelly emerges from a blackout suddenly with a giant party popper in hand – the popper explodes with enough volume to startle the audience, and the box fills with confetti, fluttering around and landing upon Kelly’s body as well as the box’s surface. The moment, like the piece as a whole, feels like a contained explosion; at once unsettling, vulnerable, and beautiful.


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