Billy Porter is the Tony and Grammy Award-winning star of the hit Broadway musical, "Kinky Boots." The musical tells the story of Charlie Prince, a struggling shoe factory owner. Porter plays Lola, the fabulous cabaret star, who comes to Charlie's rescue.
"This archetype did not exist, in this way, on Broadway, until me — and until this show," says Porter.
And critics have said, it couldn't have existed without Porter. In many ways, he is Lola. Black, gay, a supremely talented artist, who grew up always hearing that he was an anomaly. That something about him was wrong.
"From the earliest time I could remember, 'You can't be that, you can't do that, you're too black, you're too gay, you're too gospel, you're too, you can't, no, no, no, no, no, you’ll never make it. You have to fix yourself! You have to fix it!' And I understand I was not broken."
Billy Porter is now in Boston further exploring black archetypes. He's directing the Huntington Theatre Company's new production of "The Colored Museum" — George C. Wolfe's classic, cutting satire of the African-American diaspora.
And in directing this play, Porter is coming full circle in his career. When "The Colored Museum" debuted in 1986, it changed Billy Porter's life.
"I was a little black gay boy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I was looking at colleges. And my drama teacher handed me the play, and said, 'This is a very important play for you, and you might find something in it.' And so, as I was reading it, it just cracked open this sense of comradery, this sense of, somebody actually — someone has put into words what I’d been feeling...Which was, where do I fit? And why is everything that, as a performer and as an artist and as a black man in general in the world, it's like, where do you go? Where can I fit when I don't feel like I fit into any of these stereotypes? And the one thing that I saw, in this piece, there's also another one called "The Gospel According to Miss Roj," and the character is gay and the character is, you know, I would say a drag queen or a cross dresser. And it was the first time that I had ever seen, even the acknowledgement, of a black, gay character that wasn't the butt of the joke, that wasn't reviled, who actually was in a position of power. Who was controlling the space, who was controlling the moment. And it was really empowering for me because, up until then, I didn't know that I could do that. I always felt like I had to be in the back, or I had to be quiet or I had to sublimate everything, you know, to make everybody else feel comfortable — and this character does not do that. She actually does the opposite of that. And it was just really empowering."
Which is why "The Colored Museum" spoke so powerfully to Porter when he first read it. Here was a play that, according to one critic, "celebrates, satirizes, and subverts the African-American legacy."
Playwright George C. Wolfe created 11 "exhibits," themes, really, in black culture. In an exhibit called "Git On Board," a flight attendant welcomes the audience aboard a "celebrity slave ship." Passengers are asked to obey the "fasten shackles" sign, and told not to rebel.
And in "Cooking with Aunt Ethel," a character called Mammy Aunt Ethel sings a recipe on how to "bake yourself a batch of Negros."
No surprise, then, that theater critic Frank Rich wrote with admiration that, "George C. Wolfe says the unthinkable, says it with uncompromising wit and leaves the audience — as well as sacred targets — in ruins."
Billy Porter, Tony and GRAMMY Award-winning performer and director of The Huntington Theatre Company's "The Colored Museum," which will run from March 6 to April 5. He tweets @theebillyporter.
- "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."
- "There comes a time when a satirical writer, if he's really out for blood, must stop clowning around and move in for the kill. That unmistakable moment of truth arrives about halfway through 'The Colored Museum,' the wild new evening of black black humor at the Public Theater."
This segment aired on March 6, 2015.