Raja Feather Kelly and Darius Barnes on Breaking the Mold of Theater and Dance
Raja Feather Kelly and Darius Barnes had never met before, but they have mutual friends who have referred to them as “twins,” as their creative and theatrical spirits and sensibilities have so much in common.
The experimental downtown dancer and theater artist Kelly, who directed and choreographed We’re Gonna Die at off Broadway at Second Stage before the shutdown, has spent the majority of his time in the downtown theater scene, while Barnes, a Broadway and ballet dancer who got his start as a choreographer through the New York Choreographic Institute, was devoted to the eight-show-a-week schedule, most recently in the company of Mean Girls.
But when Kelly witnessed Barnes’s theatrical choreography debut for the Antonyo Awards, he wanted to be immediately connected, and what followed was a free-flowing conversation about the state of dance and theater, what creating art in quarantine looks like, and why you need to prioritize yourself as an artist.
Raja: Did you grow up in New York?
Darius: No, I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, originally. I moved here in 2004 to finish high school. I moved here for [The School of American Ballet (SAB)], so that’s how I started here in New York.
Raja: I wish I were a ballet dancer. My dream now is to make a ballet. I love what I’m doing, I don’t want to not do what I’m doing, but it is also a dream of mine to make a full ballet.
Darius: If you need help, I got you, boo. Let’s do it. I’m serious.
Raja: So you finished high school in 2007, and now you’re out here just acting, choreographing, You’re doing it all.
Darius: I’m doing it all, a little bit. You are, too. We are all exploring how we can be great in all facets of ourselves.
At the shutdown in March, I was in Mean Girls, and I am attached to the Michael Jackson musical as well. That’s coming out next year. Randomly, I did [the Antonyos], but that was a project that just happened. I was like everybody else. “What is my life? What do I do now? What is the world about to be? When am I going to work again?” And then randomly, this project happened.
Raja: I watched that opening number for the Antonyos, and to this day, that was the finest quarantine content I have seen, no kidding.
Darius: Thank you so much. Have you done anything virtual yet?
Raja: It’s been nonstop. I have a company called the feath3r theory. We’re a dance, theater, and media company. I have been very familiar with how to run a rehearsal online because if I’m on the west coast or if I’m traveling, and I need to get my company up to speed.
Darius: So you’ve been doing this.
Raja: I’ve been doing a little, not a lot, but I will say it wasn’t like, “Oh my god, what do I do? This is crazy.” I had some familiarity with being on the computer and running a rehearsal.
Darius: Zero. I had zero. I love social media, so I’m on my phone for that, but I had my computer to print out a headshot and resume, and that was it. My computer was from 2010.
Drew Shade at Broadway Black just approached me. We were having conversations back and forth as friends, and then, randomly one day, he was like, “Do you want to do this thing (the Antonyo Awards). He pulled me into the team. and it just all fell into place magically. I’ve never really been part of a process like this, especially with so many people making it up as we went along.
Raja: Am I correct in, you were essentially a producer on it, not just a director?
Darius: Yeah, all of us, pretty much the core team, we all produced it together, equally. It was nice to be part of something where everyone said, “Yes.” We started in a moment in quarantine when people were not doing anything. The world was at a standstill. I didn’t even really have the energy to do this. I don’t know where I got it from, because the world was on pause.
Raja: I just did the 48 Hours in Harlem, which was really fun. It hasn’t premiered yet. I will premiere August 20th, and it’s normally a live thing, where they get playwrights, directors, and actors together, and they give you a play written by a Black playwright, and you read six of them. Then you are to create another 10-minute show, one act, based off one of the plays that you read with your team.
Darius: Do you feel like because you already have, half of your company is media, do you feel so ahead of the curve? Is your mind on fire right now? Because this is the future and everyone’s figuring out, and you were already doing it.
Raja: In some ways, yes. In some ways, I’ve been a little bitter. In some ways, I’m like, “Everybody is catching up.” In other ways, I’m like, “This is amazing, I think people finally understand what it is that I do, and why I do what I do.” I’m a storyteller by whatever means.
I did the show, We’re Gonna Die at Second Stage, and people were like, “Oh, it’s your first time directing,” and I’m like, “Actually, I’ve been directing the last 10 years. They’re like, “Oh, wait, what?” Downtown versus uptown versus midtown versus online, and so in some ways, I feel like I’ve been able to show my true self. I’ve been working in media for a decade.
Darius: It’s the future. I’m seeing everybody figuring out what online presentation of their art is. I’m super interested to see what comes after this.
Raja: Have you had to do any auditions?
Darius: No, I haven’t had to do anything. A friend of mine is doing this virtual dance festival. We’re filming next week, so we’ve been rehearsing this week on it. That will be my first time seeing what social distanced dance film is. We have to be six feet apart, and we have to wear masks, and all this stuff, so this is the first time I’m doing that. We’ll see how it goes.
Raja: I’ve been trying to stay inside as much as possible because I’m really not about this mask life while I’m moving around. I’m a runner, I’ve been getting up at four in the morning when nobody is around so I can run because I just can’t do it. Have you found that difficult? Have you been out?
Darius: I have been out. I have not been out and active. I ride a bike, but when I’m out, I keep hand on the bike so I keep my mask sort of down, and then when I get where I’m going, I put it up.
Raja: Don’t call me for some festival where I’ve got to show up outside and be dancing and have a mask on. There’s some things we just have to preserve. I’m getting stir crazy, I want to get out. I don’t like it, I’m not made for this life,
Darius: Wait, where are you from?
Raja: Texas. Fort Hood, Texas. I’ve got a lot of family in the military, and I was the indoor kid, and everybody’s like, “Go outside.” I’m like, “No, I want to stay inside and read my book. I want to stay inside and watch TV.” Now that I’ve gotten my wish, I’m like, “Let me out.”
Darius: You’re like, “Let me break out now.”
Raja: I was in Texas until I was about 13. Then I moved to New Jersey and I finished high school there. I acted all through high school, and it was around then that I was like, “I feel like I want to be dancing.” I had this whole thing where I was like, “Do I want to be a dancer or do I want to be an actor?”
Then, when I was applying to colleges, I was like, okay I’m going to apply to three schools for theater, three schools for dance. I was going to go CAP 21 at NYU, but I had such big fears about New York City.
There was this kid who went to my high school who was a tap dancer, went to New York, went to NYU, got into 42nd Street or something. I just remember him getting into a tap show, and then dropped out of school, and then he got kicked out of the tap show and he never had a job again. I was like, “That’s going to be my life.” No one in my family went to college, so it was very important for me to go to college and be successful.
I ended up going to Connecticut College, and I went for dance. I figured if I was 80, I could become an actor at the age of 80, and be a sassy 80 year old curmudgeon, but I’m not about to be 80 and be like, “Okay, let me get my dance shoes on.” David Dorfman was the head of the Dance Department, so I joined his dance company before I graduated.
Darius: Work, of course. You did kind of manifest it for yourself. I feel like you are maybe where I’m going. When you first started your first collaborations, did you ever have that moment of, “I think I know what I’m doing, but I actually have no idea.”
Raja: I still feel like that.” I don’t want nobody to know that’s how I feel, but no.
I really do surprise myself because I know I have some mantras. I have never walked into any room being like, “I know what I’m going to do.” I walk in a room and I’m like, “Hi, everybody.” I just want to meet everybody.
Darius: Right, get comfortable.
Raja: When someone asks me to be part of their project, I’m like, “Where are you in the process? Because if you’re at the part where you’re just wanting someone to plug in choreography, that’s not going to be great for me.
Darius: Process, yeah. After that, it’s all boring. It’s all presentation. I like the fun part, discovery, and the nerdy stuff that we love. Do you feel like people are starting to understand your perspective?
Raja: In some ways, I don’t think it matters anymore. I feel very excited by the collaborations that I have ongoing. I’m kind of a loyalist, so once I start working with people and they want to keep working together, I’m like, “Great.”
Darius: I am the same.
Raja: I feel like people still don’t actually know what I do. They’re like, “We hear that you have a way of doing things that’s not the way everybody else, and I like seeing what you do. I don’t know what’s choreography and what’s not choreography.” I like the mystery. Unless you’re in a room with me, you won’t know what I do.
I do think that working on A Strange Loop and Fairview, when you see those shows and you know there’s a choreographer on it, I think some people are like, “Where’s the dance number?” There are dances, but it really is about the behavior, and how the behavior of the characters is a constant rollercoaster of volume, to where the behavior becomes the dancing, and then the dancing becomes the behavior.
Darius: Are you looking to solely direct soon?
Raja: Well, I solely directed and choreographed We’re Gonna Die at Second Stage. Then I’m directing for Rona Siddiqui. She has a show called Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfghan, and I’ll be her director and choreographer as well.
Darius: So you’re booked.
Raja: I don’t know about booked, because literally my calendar has never have been so empty.
Darius: You and me both.
Raja: I have worked every day of my life, all day, from seventh grade, and this is the first time in my whole life. I got married last year on August 25 and I was in rehearsal on August 26. But now, my calendar is free. I have made promises to people. I have obliged to two productions that I will do. My company has a number of shows. We’ve been working.
That’s actually the thing that has been lucky for us. Our work, when you’re already working in all the things, you’re like, “Great, so we can’t rehearse, but we can develop our script, we can work on our ads, we have a ton of paperwork, we’re going to work on that.”
Darius: Would you have been able to focus in that way to get these things done had this time not been given?
Raja: Yes, I think it would have had to have happened in some way or another. It just feels more focused now. I feel like it’s at this time where companies make it or break it for a number of reasons. You get past that decade and you have to substantiate. You have people you have to take care of. You understand that your company is part of systems that maybe you don’t want it to be part of, so there’s a lot of reassessing, understanding, making sure you’re doing the right thing, making sure you’re a leader, making sure you’re taking care of the people that you’ve invited into your space. It’s a lot. Being able to focus on that in this moment is a blessing, and I think part of the whole community assessment
Darius: To be honest, I am happy to sit down. Eight shows a week, I needed a break.
Raja: Tell me about that life. I probably won’t ever perform on Broadway, but what is that like?
Darius: Never say never. You don’t know.
Raja: Mean Girls is not your first Broadway show.
Darius: No, my sixth Broadway show. I was in New York City Ballet, and then I danced at the Metropolitan Opera, I was freelancing a whole bunch. Then I did Radio City Christmas Spectacular. That was my first theater experience ever. Then, I booked Memphis right after doing Radio City, so I made my Broadway debut in 2011 in Memphis. I did Memphis, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Cinderella, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Kiss Me, Kate, and then Mean Girls, and then MJ will be my next one.
I don’t know anything else. It’s a lot lighter than dance company life. That was really the reason I wanted to transition into Broadway. It seemed like the most similar to what I knew as a concert dancer. It’s a totally different world, culturally.
Raja: Are you fulfilled?
Darius: Yes. I’ve learned a lot every show that I’ve gotten. I was not one of those people who would only audition for this show or that show, I wanted to work. I’ve always just wanted to work. I’ve got bills to pay, so I’m here to book a job, do the job, and be out. I’ve been fortunate to really have some incredible learning experiences.
Only in the last, I want to say, three years, did I start putting myself first. I’m at the age where I still have a lot of dance in me, but I’m finally starting to put me first instead of my career.
Raja: I recently had something like this where something didn’t feel very right, and it was probably the best offer I’ve ever had in my life, and I was like, “Something ain’t right, I just have to say no. To this day, I’m like, “I may have just given up…”
Darius: No, you didn’t. You did not. I always believe in trusting your gut, and if you thought something was off, then it was. You’re better without it.
Raja: We’ve got to say yes to ourselves, as you’re saying. Otherwise, what are we actually doing? What’s our give back? What do we get back?
Darius: It’s hard when you’re a younger performer and you want to do everything. I felt that pressure for years, especially. I got to work.
Say yes to you. You have to.