BWW Interview: PRiMA Theatre Benefit Event Starring Billy Porter
There is a man; a strong and intelligent gentleman whose name is Billy Porter. He is fierce in his convictions, generous with his talents, and steadfast in his dedication to his craft and to the Arts. Porter originated the role of Lola in the Broadway hit, KINKY BOOTS for which he won a Tony® and Grammy® Award. He is an actor, singer, playwright, director, and composer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Most recently, Porter received the GLAAD Vito Russo Award at the 28th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. The Vito Russo Award is presented each year to an openly LGBTQ media professional who makes a profound difference in promoting equality for the LGBTQ community. Porter will be the featured Broadway star performer at The 2017 PRiMA Theatre Benefit Concert July 14th and 15th, in Lancaster, PA. I had the fortunate opportunity to interview him.
Christy Brooks: Thank you for agreeing to this phone interview and congratulations on your newest released album, Billy Porter PRESENTS: THE SOUL OF RICHARD ROGERS. Will you speak to the first time, as an 11 year old 6th grader, that you knew the theatre and singing were your calling?
Billy Porter: It was after having been introduced to theatre through an after-school musical theatre program at my middle school. You know, back when we had after-school programs and when we cared about people? It created an opportunity for someone like me who didn't have access to anything so I wouldn't have even known what theatre was had this not been presented to me. So, it was this musical theatre program where we did BABES IN ARMS (which was Richard Rogers, obviously) that I performed for the first time. I grew up in the Pentecostal Church and sang gospel music so singing the traditional Rogers and Hart score was nice and everything but I didn't make the connection that I could do it for a living. I didn't make the connection that I could sing like I sing authentically, and make a living in this thing people call theatre. That connection came that summer when I accidentally found the Tony Awards. Well, actually I don't think it was an accident at all; I think it was divine order. Jennifer Holliday was on the television and she was singing, AND I'M TELLING YOU, from DREAMGIRLS and she sang like I sang in church and that was the connection. And I thought, I can actually do this. And that's how I got bit by the bug.
Christy Brooks: Well, that's a good bug to be bitten by. Let's talk about your beautiful, honest, and pure rendition of the song EDELWEISS. I find the cultural significance of the flower edelweiss (love, devotion, and loyalty) to add value to your rendition. What were some things that you thought of that conveyed that symbolism while you were arranging this song?
Billy Porter: I just feel like it's a prayer, as I say in the spoken word in the song. It's a prayer for our country at a time of crisis. We forget what EDELWEISS signified in the show, THE SOUND OF MUSIC. The Von Trapp family is singing that song as they are trying to escape from Nazi Regime. I released this song, as a single, on the day of this year's Inauguration. The symbolism is still there. It's pointed and it's me doing my part.
Christy Brooks: I understand that as a teenager you were a member of a group called FLASH and the group would perform at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. What piece of your young self, as a member of that group FLASH, do you still carry with you today?
Billy Porter: I would say the discipline. I was 15 years old when I got that job. My mother had to give me permission to work at Kennywood. We were very poor so I always needed to have a job. And, I could sing so I went to this audition on a fluke because a friend of mine, from the Creative Performing Arts High School, had worked there the previous year and he thought I should go to the audition and so I did. I was so young but my mom saw my initiative and gave me written permission to work. So, for the next three summers I worked cutting my teeth doing six shows a day; four of them were different from one another. We had costumes from The Gap that we washed out in the motel bathroom that we were staying in and every night we hung them to drip dry. That's what happened and that's the truth. It taught me an appreciation for the business and an appreciation for the work. It taught me how to show up and go to work every day. The Arts is generally extracurricular in our lives so I think very often people don't see how to make that transition into something that is a professional job. It's not about just being fun anymore; it's a living. It's a job.
Christy Brooks: I believe people like you who do have the dedication and the passion, are the ones who can truly tell their stories in a way in which to educate people. It's the belief that you have something to say.
Billy Porter: That and knowing that that's what the Arts are for, ultimately. That's what it is for me and what it means to me. That's all I've ever been interested in.
Christy Brooks: Is there an artist that you would like to collaborate with that you haven't thus far?
Billy Porter: I've had so many great collaborations. In terms of my music, I would be interested in collaborating with some of the legacy artists like Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, or Chaka Khan. I love John Legend, too. He is one of the very few male singers who is singing in his chest voice these days. He's not trying to sound like Michael Jackson. I'm really interested in collaborating with music people because I'm trying to figure out how to have a music recording career. I'm a hybrid so it's difficult to find my space but I'm working on that. I've worked with different types of artists as well, like the COMPLEXIONS CONTEMPORARY BALLET. I've done a lot. I've been very blessed to be able to work and I work all the time.
Christy Brooks: So, from GREASE to KINKY BOOTS: high hair to high heels. What was your expectation for opening night for each show? Was it the same or different?
Billy Porter: The expectation for GREASE was very high and naïve. By the time I got to KINKY BOOTS I had no expectations. You have to just do the work and hope it resonates. You can't have expectations. And you can't think about what the work is going to do for you because that will kill you. That's what I learned.
Christy Brooks: How many years were between the two shows?
Billy Porter: GREASE was in 1994 and KINKY BOOTS in 2013. I look young. People don't realize that I've been working for 27 years in this business.
Christy Brooks: Tell me about your younger years and the support that you had.
Billy Porter: Well, I didn't have any support. I grew up in the Pentecostal church and they didn't know what I was doing. I was gay and I was banished from the church for that reason. It wasn't fun. I didn't have any fun except for when I found the theatre and I found the arts, and found my tribe. That's what helped me get out of my environment that would have, I think, ultimately destroyed me. There was so much homophobia in my church and in my race. And theatre wasn't something that was understood so a lot of the time I was just made fun of because I was doing this thing that no one really understood. Because that's what we do as humans: if we don't understand something, we make fun of it or we want to beat it up or destroy it. It was weird to me but I guess that's human nature.
Christy Brooks: Are there people in your life now that didn't give you support at that time but now do?
Billy Porter: Let me make it very clear that my mother and my sister were always supportive. The other people around, many of them didn't know how to support me because it was something that was so new and they didn't understand it. Those people, who didn't know how to support me then, are the people now who are supportive of me because they know how to be. There still are people who think what I do is sinful and they are never going to be supportive of me and I left them alone a long time ago.
Christy Brooks: How was your life changed when you started on Broadway?
Billy Porter: What my life was when I did GREASE, where I was pigeonholed into a corner and people thought I was a big queen who couldn't do anything but sing, to where I landed the leads in ANGELS IN AMERICA and KINKY BOOTS, and winning Tony Awards for playing real people, was a journey of intention. Although I was grateful for the opportunity of GREASE, I had to pull myself out of that box that I was initially put into. For someone who doesn't understand the business, who doesn't understand the history of African American performers being "clowns" with no attachment to their humanity, that's what GREASE was for me. So, I vowed from that moment to never be that again. I had to step out and make that happen.
Christy Brooks: The strength needed to make that happen is not always easy.
Billy Porter: No, it isn't. But I have my mother, who was born with a neurological disability that has slowly taken away her mobility. I have watched her deal and struggle with this her whole life and get out of bed every day and do something and move forward. I watched her do all the things that everybody told her she wouldn't be able to accomplish and she did them anyway. She is such an inspiration to me. She's the reason I get up every day. She's in a nursing home now and she still gets up every day. She tells the nurses, "Get me up. I don't want to be in bed until noon. I'm up at 8:00 a.m. Get me up, get me dressed, and get me active." And, she has barely any mobility left. That's my mother. She's unbelievable.