We’ve seen these techniques in documentaries before: An actor reads, with reverence, words said long ago, as period-appropriate music plays; or decades-old audio is heard, while the camera focuses on the steady unspooling of a reel-to-reel tape deck.
In the latest documentary directed and produced by World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (the Emmy-winning minds behind “RuPaul’s Drag Race”), that reel-to-reel shares the frame with contemporary LGBTQs, whose faces are easily recognizable—but their voices are the ones of people who experienced the 1969 Stonewall Riots first-hand.
“Stonewall Outloud”—as narrated by RuPaul—tasks the likes of Fortune Feimster with (literally) speaking for Jheri Faire. Eighty years old at the time of the taping, Feimster, as Faire, recalls starting “a gay lifestyle in 1948, when I was around 39 or 40. At that time, if there was even a suspicion that you were a lesbian, you were fired from your job. And you were in such a position of disgrace, that you slunk out without saying goodbye. You just disappeared. You just disappeared.”
The cast also includes Amber Whittington as Mama Jean, Connor Franta as Randy Wicker, Isis King as Joan Nestle, Adam Rippon as Tree, Jinkx Monsoon as Rudy, Lance Bass and Michael Turchin as Geanne Harwood and Bruce Merrow, Keiynan Lonsdale as Robert “Birdy” Rivera, and Laith Ashley as Henry Baird. (That some of these Stonewall-era names may well be unfamiliar to younger viewers, just as the cast might be unfamiliar to older viewers, is just one of the ways the film functions to foster awareness.)
To see these contemporaries speaking of oppression and uprising in the voices of those now decades their senior, but around their age at the time of Stonewall, is initially jarring, then intensely intimate—an effect Bailey and Barbato first contemplated upon hearing Dave Isay’s audio recordings of interviews with Stonewall veterans, which became the basis for the 1989 NPR program “Remembering Stonewall,” the first-ever documentary account of the 1969 event. (Fifteen years later, Isay’s passion for collecting and preserving first-hand accounts led to his founding StoryCorps—project partners on the “Stonewall Outloud” doc, along with YouTube Originals.)
“When you do historical documentaries,” Barbato says, “there are challenges to create a feeling of the present tense. I was thinking, how can we intensify that experience, to amplify the voice and connect the younger generation to Stonewall… and the idea of using [Isay’s] actual audio, to me, creates a more visceral experience than just doing recreations or having actors read lines off the page. Forcing actors to connect with someone’s voice, if they do it well, they’re connecting with someone’s soul… I started thinking of the power of lip synching. I just thought, ‘Lip Synch for Your Life.”
That reference to the episode-ending “RuPaul’s Drag Race” challenge —wherein two queens up for elimination mouth the words of an iconic song and physically express its emotional essence—has certainly given many a contestant their iconic moment, and a lasting connection to fans. But the WOW duo had their reservations about its use as a documentary device.
“Fenton and I, we really had no idea if it would work. It was a conceptual notion,” Barbato notes, but one “YouTube and StoryCorps said was really interesting. We were like ‘Oh, shit. Is this gonna work?’ ”
Forced by that positive reception to play their hand, Barbato recalls reasoning that WOW’s past forays into the experimental usually yielded positive results. “Well, we’ve been making documentaries for the last 100 years,” he exaggerated, by about three quarters, “and if you take a peek [at our documentaries], we’re always trying to explore different ways to tell stories.”
In their breakout 2000 doc, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” for example, “we used puppets. We’re trying to make the experience more interesting [for the viewer], and letting the story inspire the style of how we tell it. Having said that, this is our first lip synch doc. I think we’ve stumbled upon something.”
They’re hardly the first ones to do it, Barbato readily notes, citing the 2012 doc “The Imposter.” Also of note, the current Comedy Central series “Drunk History” employs the technique, when imbibing comedians relate accounts of historical figures and events, as others act out their narrative, while lip synching the storyteller’s increasingly drunken, often slurred, semi-articulations.
Although “Stonewall Outloud” doesn’t play it for laughs, its sober use of lip synching is hardly dry.
“I thought the way that Raja connected with Sylvia Rivera is just kind of mind-blowing,” Barbato says, of the “Drag Race” Season 3 winner’s portrayal. “Not only did she become, and embody her, but… I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but it really moved Raja in a profound way.”
Barbato’s observation is validated by Raja herself, who, when not lip synching Rivera, comments on the founding member of the Gay Liberation Front she’s been matched with. “Her voice was so familiar to me,” Raja says, “it sounded like a friend.”
“We were channeling these people and channeling that time,” Barbato recalls, of the mood in the room where the doc was filmed. “There was a reverence that took place—not just for the actors and myself, but also, the entire crew. There was something special happening. It was, like, spooky spiritual, man.”
As what WOW hopes to achieve with the project, Barbato says it’s meant to “invite curiosity about our past, and encourage today’s generation of LGBTQs to embrace all generations, to extend gratitude to our forefathers and sisters, who fought so hard for the rights that we have… The only way to move forward is to know where we came from. I’m saying so many clichéd things. But these clichés are so true, now more than ever. I feel we’re living in a time where many of our rights are stranded, jeopardized in a way that, five years ago, we could not imagine. It’s so easy for our rights to disappear. It’s happened before.”
Barbato says that although WOW projects have always been stamped with the duo’s personal beliefs (“Even when we’re making ‘straight programming,’ it’s always through our lens,” he notes), “It feels like nowadays, that’s not enough. It’s important to mobilize, and produce in slightly more overt ways. We need to be on call to step up to the battle lines. Ah, that monster in the White House.”
“Stonewall Outloud” project partner StoryCorps is giving you the opportunity to build upon audio archives of Stonewall-era LGBTQs, with “Stonewall OutLoud”—a participatory initiative to gather the stories of LGBTQ elders before they are lost to history.
“StoryCorps,” a recent press release notes, is asking “people across the country to use the free StoryCorps mobile App to record the stories of people within the LGBTQ community who were born before the events of Stonewall. Each of these interviews will become a permanent part of American history at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress… With special emphasis given to rural communities, communities of color, and transgender elders, the initiative seeks to connect older and younger generations and, through the powerful StoryCorps interview experience, preserve these stories for the future.”
“Stonewall Outloud” premieres June 28 on WOWPresents—World of Wonder’s YouTube channel. Watch the trailer here.