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.
“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 anyone around you thinks about it.”
Two years later, he conceived and directed a groundbreaking musical, Being Alive, infusing the illustrious works of Stephen Sondheim with jazz, soul, gospel, R&B and hip-hop. Fellow Carnegie Mellon alumnus Leslie Odom, Michael McElroy, Vanita Harbour and Patina Miller also worked on the ambitious endeavor.
“I don’t in any way disparage any time I’ve had in the trenches because it really has made me the artist I am today,” Porter reflects about his out-the-box projects.
Kicking it up in red, thigh-high, six-inch heels eight times a week in Kinky Boots marks a triumphant payoff for the former Star Search champ, who had no qualms about performing in drag for his big Broadway comeback. “I called the director [Jerry Mitchell] after it was announced and told him I wanted to come out of a semi-retirement for that part,” he reveals. “I was already on his radar so it didn’t take a lot of convincing… but I had to audition just like everybody else. I had to prove myself, go in and jump through hoops of fire like everybody.”
Porter says he was more than familiar with Kinky’s source material, the 2006 indie film that launched the Hollywood career of Chiwetel Ejiofor. Working with theater pioneer Harvey Fierstein and pop music legend Cyndi Lauper was added value, everything he could possibly dream of. “[They] are sort of godparents of creating work based on their individual singularity, and as somebody who is very individual and singular, it’s been great having that around—learning from them and learning how do it deeper is fantastic.”
Porter seems to have a bright future ahead of him, even as he approaches the age of 44. And the numerous theater award wins this season hasn’t gone to his head either.
“Listen, I don’t do this for awards,” he proclaims. “Now I’m not going to lie and say I don’t like them or wouldn’t want to win them or it’s not nice. But after a certain period of time in a person’s adult life, once you get past the initial sort of motivation that gets you into being a creative person, the only way to continue forward and be present in your life is to focus on the work, and know that it’s the work that matters and not awards. I would be in this regardless, no matter if I was having an award or not. It’s easy being who you are when what you are is what’s popular. It’s easy to present yourself when everyone is listening.”
Wolfe echoes the same sentiment: “Hopefully [the award] helps to increase the number of zeros on your paycheck and expands your work options. But when it comes to the actual doing of the work, it has no impact whatsoever, nor should it. Because the next day, you still have to get back to the grind, writing a new play or working on new role.
“And so the true reward has got to be the exhilarating, exhausting, liberating journey you go on when you are in a rehearsal room, or in performance, not a bauble win along the way,” Wolfe continues. “The dignity, spirit and power Billy displays each night on that stage is the real reward, for us and for himself as an artist.”
Kinky Boots is currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City. A national tour gets underway September 2014 in Las Vegas.
Karu F. Daniels's work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Vibe and Uptown, among others. Follow him on Twitter @TONTOKaru.