BILLY PORTER: AWAKE – STAY WOKE – AND SING!

A man of many hats: artist, activist, actor, singer, son, grandson, husband.

As the multi-talented Billy Porter begins filming his latest role Pray Tell in the new Ryan Murphy FX musical series, Pose, he tells us why his art is imbued with his sense of purpose and his activism.  A leader in The Resistance, he insists that we must find ways of being enraged in graceful and forgiving ways.  We talk about why his return to his Tony-winning role in Kinky Boots last year was a way to find a place to put that rage in service to his art, his sense of his artful purpose having changed the first time he saw Angels in America,  which is opening on Broadway this season and in which he portrayed Belize in the play’s last revival in New York at Signature Theatre.  James Baldwin said, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”  Hear Porter disturb it in this inspiring Q and A.

 

KEVIN SESSUMS: Why did you do Kinky Boots again?  You are an artist I have alway thought of your moving forward and never looking back.  Why would you return to the role last year?

BILLY PORTER:  First of all, when we did it the first time it was during the Obama era so things had changed and the message of the show was necessary – is necessary – now more than ever.  I had also found myself in a space of rage – I mean, real rage – and I didn’t know what to do with it.  And returning to Kinky Boots allowed me to have a place to go to practice grace, to practice forgiveness, and to practice unconditional love.

“‘Angels in America’ changed everything for me when I saw that original Broadway production.”
KS: One of the questions I have for artists in this troubling age of of Trump is how does it affect one’s art?  Does it make you want to do your art more or does he preoccupy you in such a way that it interferes with your art?  Does resisting him ratchet up your art or rend it in some awful way in that way he rends everything else?
BP:  It makes me want to make my art much, much more.  We have to respond.  We have to take up arms and respond the way that we’re supposed to as artists. 
KS:  “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
BP:  You know your James Baldwin.  Good. 
KS:  Is your art a way to be of service?
BP:  Of course, it is.  It always has been. 
KS:  I’m curious.  You opened Kinky Boots and won your Tony for it in the Obama era.  You mentioned that you wanted to do it again in the Trump era.  Did you find  the audiences different when you were doing it a second time?
BP: Sometimes.  One night, there was a woman who had a sort of laughing-at-me fit.  It was not from a place of laughing with me.  It was, I felt, inappropriate.  It was right before “Not My Father’s Son” in that bathroom scene.  She was alone by herself in such laughter.  And I thought, no, we’re not doing that. 
KS:  How do you deal with something like that as an artist onstage?
BP:  Well, first of all you do have to deal with it.  That night, I waited.  I glared in her direction.  And I waited for her to understand that she was being inappropriate.  Then I moved forward. 
KS:  I just watched your speech on YouTube when you won the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD dinner.  If for no other reason, I am glad you said yes to my interviewing you so I could do my research and find that speech and listen to it.  It was glorious the way you honored those on whose shoulders you now stand.   I thought to myself how proud your grandmama would be of you.  When you perform are you aware of those shoulders in such a way, not only when you make a political speech?
BP:  Of course. 
KS:  And, more important now in this era, are you aware that you are now a pair of shoulders for others to stand on?
BP:  Yes.  I am.  That is why I’m here.  
KS:  Baldwin’s great friend, Lorraine Hansberry, said, ““For above all, on behalf of an ailing world which sorely needs our defiance, may we, as Negroes or women, never accept the notion of  ‘our place.’”
BP:  Ever, ever!
KS:  I think you are in that tradition of Baldwin and Hansberry.  The ailing world needs you and artists like you.
BP:  Absolutely. 
KS:  Do you ever get the professional advice to calm down a little bit and don’t be so outspoken?
“Every part of my journey was filled with homophobia and racism. Every part of it.”

BP:  Sometimes.  But I’m 48 and people know who I am and what I do.  I’ve done this from the beginning.  I’ve never faltered or changed.  I am the same today and yesterday and forever.  If you want me to do a show with no politics in it, you can ask me and I will make the decision whether or not I do the gig.  But always know that I’m a person who lives in the world.   I’m an artist who lives in this world and what I am doing on a stage is always going to reflect what’s going on in the world.  I was on a tour last summer and I had some pushback in a couple of places. 

KS:  I read your column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette you wrote in response to the pushback you got from some audience members about your saying “fuck” in front of children in the audience and that you were too filled with rage and they had come there to be entertained.   I thought it was brilliantly reasoned, your response to them.  And I loved the title: “Why I Am Committed to Disturbing the Peace.” 

BP:  I was kind before Charlottesville.  There were no f-bombs before Charlottesville. 

KS:  You became successful rather quickly in the theatre because you are an immensely talented creature.
BP:  Thank you.
KS:  You are.  Accept the compliment with grace.
BP:  I am.
KS: But did you ever experience racism and homophobia in your career?
BP:  Every part of my journey was filled with homophobia and racism.  Every part of it. 
KS:  I can’t imagine you swallowing your pride in the face of that to get through it to some greater goal.  How did you cope with that?
BP:  It just made me work harder.  It forced me to go deeper creatively.  When I couldn’t get work, it forced me to create my own work.  It forced me to be a better artist.  A better human being.  While it sucked, it made me who I am today. 
KS. Early on, you were in the off-Broadway song-cycle show,  Songs for a New World by composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown.  That show was about moments of decision. When one hits a wall, does one take a stand or does one turn around?  Do I move forward or do I go backward?  What were some of those moments like in your own life?
Porter is not one to skirt any issue.

BP:  I saw my career going into stereotype  at one point and I had to stop it.  And I just stopped taking that kind of work.  And because of that, work dried up for a very long time for me.  But I knew that the kind of work that I wanted to do was not just to show up and prance around and stop your show and sing the roof off the joint.  No.  I have a story to tell.  And you’re going to listen to the story. 

KS:  Angels in America is opening on Broadway in a few days.  You did it at the revival at Signature Theatre.  You were brilliant as Belize.  Tony Kushner is also brilliant in his use of Belize – who is almost a stereotype when he first prances onto the stage – to transcend the stereotype itself. 

BP:  That was the show – Angels in America – that changed everything for me when I saw that original Broadway production.  I was doing Grease around the corner and I went to see it.  It was buzzing.  Theatre folks were abuzz about it yet I didn’t know what it was really about.  So I went to see it.  It was the first time I had ever seen anything or any representation of any person who looked like me specifically.  It changed everything for me.  I was: Yes, this is what I need to do.  That is the kind of work that I need to do. 

KS:  So what did it mean to you finally to do that role, to do that work?

BP:  Well, I fought for it.  I did the work that changed the perception of who and what people thought I was.  I was, okay, now let’s have the career that I want to have which is the one that I’m having now. 

KS:  What are you up to artistically these days?

Porter and his husband Adam Smith.
BP:  I’m writing two musicals.  And I’m doing this new Ryan Murphy show, Pose, which is set in the world of Paris Is Burning and the rise of Wall Street in the 1980s.  I’m one of the black LGBT people on it. 
KS:  You celebrated your first wedding anniversary in January.  How has that changed your life, having a husband?
BP:  Hmm.  You know, I have been a person who stood alone for a really long time.  For all my life really, I’ve had to do it all by myself.  It’s a learning experience to let somebody in now on the journey and I love it.  I’m loving it. 
KS:  To go back to Hansberry, she said, “The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely.”
BP:  Yes. 
KS:  I think of myself as an artist.  All my impulses are artistic ones.  I think we are solitary people in lots of ways.  It is the artistic condition.  You can create these ersatz families during a show’s run or on a movie or television set, but then we refuel in solitary ways.  So it always interests me when artists find that soulmate and get married and become less solitary.  How does it affect the art?  Instead of coming home to yourself, you come home to someone else.
BP:  It deepens the art.  It deepens it. 
KS:  Talking now gay-man-to-gay-man and not artist-to-artist, this is one of the things that I find kind of hard to navigate.   There are so many gay men now married  that if one is not married then one feels as if one has failed in some way.
BP:  You need to give yourself a break.  We just got the right to do it, to actually have a relationship that people honor.   We’re just now learning how to do it.
KS:  I love that your have always been out.  I have gotten in trouble in the past when talking to famous people who are not completely out of the closet by trying to engage them about being gay.  Some have equated it with my talking about what they do sexually, a definition of being gay itself that can explain in some way why some people choose to be in the closet.  But I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about who they are sitting on the sofa with me.  It’s not any of my business what they do in their bedrooms.  I am not equating being gay with a sexual act just as I don’t equate being heterosexual with one.  I am talking about who they are as people.  That was one of Vito Russo’s biggest arguments: it is not a sex act.  It is who we are as people and as citizens. 
BP:  Right.  They always go to the sex.  I always say, “Get out of my bedroom and you’ll be fine.”  Get out of my bedroom.  Stop being so concerned what I do in my bedroom because I’m not concerned with what you’re doing in yours. Get. Out. Of. My. Bedroom.
KS:  One of those people I interviewed who got upset at that line of questioning from me was Kevin Spacey who, once called out for other things and other kinds of behavior, was one of the catalysts for the #metoo movement.  You’re a sexy guy.  Did you ever have to deal with sexual harassment in show business or sexual predatory behavior by those in the position to hire you?
BP:  I’m a survivor of sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 12 so by the time I got to the business I wasn’t having any of it.  So I really didn’t experience it in the business. I wasn’t really that person.  But I have experienced it in my life.
KS:  Why do you think that some people in politics and in our culture have empathy for others and some people just seem to be lacking the empathy gene altogether?
BP:  Oh, honey, if I knew that answer I’d be a gazillionaire.
KS:  Okay.  Thanks, Billy, for your time and your art and your activism.  Any last words for our brothers and sisters in the resistance?
BP:  Eternal vigilance!  Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. 
  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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