It’s two weeks before the world premiere of "The Purists," and Billy Porter wants the cameras to stop clicking.
The Tony and Grammy Award-winning artist sits in front of a small group of actors, watching intently as they rehearse their lines. Two characters, Mr. Bugz (played by J. Bernard Calloway) and Lamont (played by Morocco Omari) are yelling at each other. Their voices echo off the walls and can be heard down the hallway. The scene, close to the end of the play, is a sensitive one. That’s one of the reasons Porter asks the press to briefly stop circling and taking pictures.
He wants the actors to work through the moment without interruption. This is Porter behind-the-scenes, Porter as a director, Porter when he’s not making dazzling fashion statements on red carpets or being carried into the Met Gala draped in gold by burly men, or playing the role of Pray Tell on the FX television series "Pose."
The 49-year-old performer has had quite the year. His appearance at the Oscars in a velvet tuxedo-dress inspired by the godfather of ballroom Hector Xtravaganza was the look of the evening. He's now in the running for an Emmy in the category of outstanding lead actor in a drama series. And Porter recently took part in his first sex scene on "Pose," a show that continually breaks down barriers in its portrayal of black and brown queer characters and their lives during the AIDS epidemic.
The Huntington isn't unfamiliar territory for Porter. This is his third time directing with the company. His previous plays were "Topdog/Underdog" in 2017 and "The Colored Museum" in 2015. "The Purists" playwright, Dan McCabe, approached Porter, sensing he would be drawn to the script.
"As a performer, I'm only responsible for myself,” Porter says after the rehearsal. “As a director, I'm responsible for the entire thing. All of the departments, all of the collaboration is sort of governed by me. I have to lead it. When my brain fires on all cylinders, when I'm using everything, it's just intoxicating.”
In some ways, "The Purists" is about basic human decency. It’s about friendship, differences of opinions and seeking connection. It revolves around a handful of personalities who hang out on the same New York City stoop over two days.
There are two aspiring women emcees, two veterans of hip-hop — one who is a legendary DJ in the scene, the other a well-known rapper — and their queer white neighbor, a telesales director who is also a musical theater aficionado.
They’re seen discussing race, sexuality, music and life as the tension builds for an unexpected twist. The play opens with a collision of melody and percussion. The queer white neighbor, whose name is Gerry, is listening to "Getting to Know You" from the "King and I," when it gets drowned out by Public Enemy’s “Shut 'Em Down” blasted from a boombox downstairs. Immediately, lines in the sand are drawn between two distinctive tastes.
“It is, you know, a very strong piece about choosing understanding, choosing to love thy neighbor as thyself and through your differences,” Porter said. “It's simple, you know. It's a simple, simple idea that I think we really get to convey.”
Analisa Velez, who plays the role of Val Kano, describes Val like the tía (Spanish for aunt or auntie) who is the life of the party as soon as she walks in the door. She’s also layered. She dreams of making it big as a rapper, but there are walls that stand in her way, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“She has this moment where she just wants to be seen,” Velez says of her character. “She just wants to be validated.”
In rehearsal, Velez’s character breaks into a rap, and Porter stands in front of her to polish the scene and help sharpen her body movements and positioning.
“He's also an actor, a writer, a producer, so he just understands people. He understands how to work with actors,” Velez says. “He sees us. He sees us wholly, and yeah, that's all really anybody can really ask for, right?”
Porter calls the characters "flawed human beings trying to find a way."
In one scene, Gerry, the white queer neighbor defends himself from homophobic threats, yet in the same breath says some pretty racist stuff. In that moment, the dialogue is so bare, unconcerned with being politically correct while also self-aware.
Playwright Dan McCabe said this effort was intentional. A white New Yorker, he said he created three-dimensional characters of color by listening to people he knows. He first started working on the play while studying at Juilliard in the fall of 2015.
Two of the characters in particular, Gerry and Lamont, are "purists" in different senses. One is a hip-hop connoisseur, the other a Broadway traditionalist. Both believe the best version of their respective art forms is in the past.
“They're the kind of people that you might not see together hanging out," McCabe said. "They're the kind of people that you might think don't even like each other for a variety of reasons. And I thought there was just a very interesting parallel between the two of them. What's going on beneath the surface and in their heads.”
When asked who his favorite character was, McCabe couldn’t choose. Then, laughing and partially joking, he chose the stoop. It makes sense. It's on these steps people smoke and carry on, argue and reconcile, rap battle, come together or decide to part ways.
"I want [the audience] to think about people that are different than them on the surface at least," McCabe said. "And think about how maybe they can relate more to some people that they think they can't. I want them to think about the opinions that certain people have. What in their life brought them to that place? What are the given circumstances that make them think the way they do?"
This stoop in Queens is a metaphor for our larger collective conversations. It's a pulpit, a place for fireside chats. It represents the dinner table at Thanksgiving, where people are just trying to figure out how to get along.
"The Purists" runs from Aug. 30 to Oct. 6 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
This segment aired on August 26, 2019.