"Ugly," is a new theater production which took place from September 5 to 8 at the The Bushwick Starr Theater, at 207 Starr Street. “Ugly,” is a one-man, one-act ballet by Raja Feather Kelly. As such the plot in the production is mostly told in dance and metaphor. The parts of the play alternate between scenes where Raja, playing the main character, is in his “room,” and scenes where Raja is in the larger stage proper.
“Ugly,” uses LED lights, a smoke machine, wooden set fabrication, and black lights in order to tell its story. Raja wears silver and cobalt makeup over his entire naked body, with the exception of a dancer’s loincloth. Raja also has streaks of day-glo oranges, greens, and reds, and these are illuminated selectively, and in these times Raja often uses the illuminated masks as different characters. Raja’s glittery blood-red lipstick may be a nod to the Pierrot clown form Commedia del’Arte, who in spite of his status as an innocent and happy youth is nevertheless sad. The use of props, such as a hipster’s orange beanie, premium beats headphones, or a trucker hat further illustrate the confinement of roles and establish Raja’s character as being isolated at home.
The play’s first two parts are representative of the themes in this ballet. In the first part of the play, Raja sits in his room, and the set lights turn off and on to show different poses of the character. The character wears his cap and headphones, and different songs from popular culture play – including theme songs from sitcoms, “Friends,” and “Fresh Prince of Belair,” play. This first part of the play takes place in the stage’s “room,” and the actions of dance are intentionally cramped and confined, a self-imposed jail sentence.
The lights then go out, and next Raja rises from the side stage’s ledge as classical music plays. With this, “dancing on a ledge,” as a straightforward metaphor for suicidal grief, Raja’s dance here indeed contains slow motion pantomime about jumping from the ledge, and his terrible grimace makes this sadness palpable, comprehensible. It is a heartbreaking scene, and the classical music and motions of Raja here don’t show an effective escape from his confinement.
Raja’s visible sadness, and his suicidal thoughts are among the best examples of the play’s themes of ugliness and beauty. The sadness is ugly. On the other hand, ugly might refer to artificial and willful distancing of the other, that sometimes people don’t deserve to be called ugly. Raja says as much in discussions about the “other,” toward the second half of the play. Finally, ugly refers to a conceptual self-hatred, as a reason for and extension of suicidal tendencies.
This last conflict, of self-hatred, speaks to Raja’s use of popular culture. The reasoning goes that Raja’s confinement in his room is physical, but also mental. Philosophers say, “all that we are is a result of what we have thought,” and this is readily apparent in any interaction, that humans mirror each other from yawns and sneezes to more complicated emotions and speech patterns. To hear the “Friends,” themesong sing, “No one told you life was going to be this way,” is trite and unhelpful for sadness, because popular culture programs rote answers and preprogrammed social cues. The human mind is hungry and needs to be fed, and there’s spirit and dignity that popular culture does not serve.
Raja’s work has similarities to the works of singer Frank Ocean. Right away, both artists are black, homosexual (Frank Ocean is bisexual), and hipsters who participate in both popular culture and indie culture. The foundational and provocative thematic similarity between Raja and Frank Ocean is both use materialism and enjoyment to create a critical distance from these pleasures, and ultimately surpass them. When Frank Ocean contrasts the Pyramids of Giza to a strip club called, “The Pyramid,” he does so not to mock a material pursuit and attainment of wealth, because the stripper is beautiful, and she needs the money to live. He contrasts the two as a confirmation that both are real. Raja’s materialism of his hipster character aren’t under attack here as vanity. Rather, they serve as inspiration to search and work for something better, something deeper.
Raja’s final scenes of liberation in this play, using dance, is incredibly graceful and athletic. Raja spins and dives over and over until it’s clear beyond any doubt this character will escape the prison of his mind. Raja’s character finds freedom only after a big fight, and hard work. The ending is realistic about the attainment of happiness without letting the audience off the hook for their personal pursuits of freedom in their own lives.
The next morning after I saw the play, my roommate was doing dishes in the kitchen and woke me up. She was banging loudly, and so I knew I wanted to get out of the house. I went outside, and it was raining. I walked as fast as I could to the G train, which was not functional because of weekend track work, so I went to the other train in my neighborhood, the AC. Hoping for respite and haven, I went to the Museum of Modern Art, but when I got there I didn’t want to go in. On the train ride home, busking dancers ambushed the car, which in New York is called, “Show Time.” The dancers had a step show of stunning beauty, gymnastics, and juggling. Immediately I snapped out of my sadness funk. It was at that moment I knew Raja’s ballet had been effective.