During his acceptance speech at this year’s Tony Awards, Best Actor in a Musical winner Billy Porter shared a poignant story about how seeing the cast of Dreamgirls appear on the 1982 Tonys telecast changed the course of his life. This anecdote isn’t unfamiliar to the legions of fans who’ve followed his professional trajectory over the better part of the past two decades. He shares the fond memory, and will even belt out verses of Jennifer Holiday’s iconic ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” at the drop of a hat.
Like Dreamgirls, Porter is considered Broadway pedigree. But for many outside the theater realm, his name isn’t known. That’s been changing since last month, when the Kinky Boots star made history as one of five African-Americans who’ve garnered Tony Awards.
“It was a wonderful, historic year, and I felt blessed and honored to be a part of it,” Porter says about that fateful night. Unlike the Oscars and the Emmys, which honor film and television, the Tonys have historically been more generous when it comes to celebrating performers of color. Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Diana Ross have all scored the coveted award.
For Porter, who portrays drag queen (or “gender illusionist,” as he likes to refer to her) Lola, the road to the prestigious awards ceremony has been long and sometimes arduous. The Pittsburgh native first showed up on Broadway in 1991 with a role in Miss Saigon. Glitzy jukebox musicals like Grease, Five Guys Named Moe and Smokey Joe’s Café followed on his résumé. And then there was nothing.
“Listen, I have not been on Broadway in 13 years. Do not get it twisted,” he says rather matter-of-factly. “And I have had not had a steady paycheck in that period of time. I’m glad that [people] think I’ve managed to keep my profile up, because I have, and I’ve worked hard at doing that. But just because you’re working does not mean you’re making money. That’s two very different things in show business.”
Of his long absence, the one-time A&M Records recording artist says further: “There’s this misconception that I’ve been turning down roles. It’s just not true. The reality is, there was nothing for me to do, nobody was calling, the phone wasn’t ringing.”
Taking the advice of his mentor, celebrated Broadway powerhouse director George C. Wolfe, Porter didn’t sit idle. He went to UCLA grad school, studied screenwriting and started to create work for himself. “[George] told me, ‘You cannot wait for other people to give you permission to practice your art. You have to always do that no matter if people are listening or not,’ ” says the Carnegie Mellon University alum.
It was 13 years of a dry spell. But I’ve been writing, I’ve been directing, I’ve been creating. I’ve been sort of finding creative outlets for myself that have helped me be a better artist.
“So I continued to practice even though nobody was coming to me or paying attention to me at all,” he continues. “It was 13 years of a dry spell. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any work. That means the high profile work that pays you a lot of money to where you can pay your bills consistently was not really happening for me. But by the same token, I’ve been writing, I’ve been directing, I’ve been creating. I’ve been sort of finding creative outlets for myself that have helped me be a better artist.”
According to Wolfe (who directed this season’s biggest box-office hit play, Lucky Guy), the encouragement paid off. “Broadway is a great place to work, but like all forms of entertainment, it can pigeonhole you if you let it. And so after you get cast as the singing/shouting diva plant in Little Shop of Horrors, or the singing/shouting diva beautician in Grease, you need to find alternative structures where you can grow and expand. And that’s what [Porter] did. He crafted his own career. And as a result, he grew as an artist and a person.”
One project in particular was the biographic tour de force Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am)—a cabaret-styled show described as “a spiritual, sexual, and musical odyssey in which the teachings of the Pentecostal church collide with the gospel according to Dreamgirls.” Premiering at the Public Theatre during spring 2005, the critically acclaimed masterpiece chronicled the tragedies (sexual abuse, bullying) and triumphs (self-discovery, dream following) of an openly gay Black man who grew up in the ghettoes of Pittsburgh. And it was all presented via a musical tapestry that included the theme song “Black Broadway Bitch.” (Yes, about Billy Porter.)
“When who you are naturally is not only considered a sin but you’re reviled for being that human being and you don’t have any control over it, there are lots of issues that come into play,” Porter confided about being openly gay. “And it takes a lot of presence, determination, courage and space to figure out how to land in that truth regardless of what