The coming weeks will see the culmination of a journey Billy Porter began in 1994.
Back then, the 51-year-old Pittsburgh native was living in New York City and playing Teen Angel in the Broadway revival of "Grease" "with 14 inches of orange rubber hair on my head stomping around like a Little Richard automaton on crack," he said in a phone interview last week.
During that period, Porter caught part one of Tony Kushner's two-part play "Angels in America" and immediately connected with the character of Belize, a Black, gay, ex-drag queen who became a nurse on an AIDS ward floor. He realized Belize was "a representation that I had never seen before" and he vowed to do that kind of work going forward.
He's fulfilled that goal many times over, including in 2010 when he played Belize in Signature Theatre Company's 20th-anniversary production of "Angels in America"; in 2013 when he originated the role of Lola in "Kinky Boots," for which he won the Tony for best actor in musical; and his role as ballroom MC Pray Tell in the FX series "Pose," which returned Sunday for its third and final season.
"The journey I've made since 1994 to flipping the trajectory of my life to watching this final season of 'Pose' is my evolution of speaking that into the universe and manifesting that for myself," Porter said. "All these years later, everybody sees what I manifested for myself on that day."
"Pose" shines a spotlight on New York City's Black and LGBTQ+ ballroom culture in the 1980s and '90s. It zeroes in on a few specific figures, like the makeshift family led by matriarch Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Porter's Pray Tell, a larger-than-life figure. The specter of the HIV/AIDS crisis looms over everyone as the then-mysterious disease ravages the community.
Co-creator Steven Canals announced in early March that the show's seven-episode third season would be its last "because we reached the intended ending of our story," he said. Porter, who won the 2019 best actor in a drama Emmy for his performance, says playing the character has been a privilege.
"I feel so blessed to have lived long enough to see the day when a show like this, a character like this could exist," he said. "When I got into the business, it was an impossibility for something like this. It's just beautiful and lovely, and to have been chosen to be a part of it, to be able to tell a story of a time period I actually lived through and really create a space for an entire generation to heal is a really powerful thing. That's what I've always wanted to do and be with my art."
He's gratified that shows like HBO Max's "It's A Sin" have picked up where "Pose" is leaving off in terms of telling stories about the vibrancy of LGBTQ+ communities everywhere and just how terrifying AIDS was and still is for them.
Porter had a lot to say about "Pose" coming back as anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ+ violence remains prevalent, as does legislation targeting those groups.
"It's not a mistake, it's not an accident, it's not a coincidence that in the space where the most violent, extremist opposition is happening to a group of individuals, human rights — basic human rights — are being attacked once again," he said. "Frederick Douglass says eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. If you want your rights, apparently you have to fight for them until the day you die. It's been that way for everybody the whole time.
"The messaging is wrong. The messaging that we arrive somewhere is wrong. Change and flip the script in your brain from thinking we're supposed to arrive somewhere and everything's going to be great and fine. That's not life, that's not the truth, and that's the problem. Yes we're tired, yes it's exhausting, yes it feels like it has always. There's been some changes, but progression is slow. It's not just slow for us, it's been slow for everybody. Black people have been dealing with the same s— for 400 years. Is this better than slavery? Slightly. And we still have work to do and will always have work to do."
Porter has never been shy about his struggles growing up Black, gay and Christian in Homewood and East Liberty and his desire to always keep it real, especially in his hometown. He'll return to Pittsburgh this summer to shoot his directorial debut film, "What If," a coming-of-age dramedy about Kelsa, a Black transgender high school senior who will be played by Yasmin Finney, a 17-year-old Black trans woman.
"What If" is set in Pittsburgh, which Porter didn't realize until he got to page 30 of the script.
"Then it said 'Pittsburgh aviary' and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to get this movie," he remembered. "That's the sign."
He said that principal photography on "What If" is currently slated to begin July 19 and he'll probably be back sometime before that to prepare. The plan is to shoot on Mount Washington and at the National Aviary, among other locations. Porter also wants to squeeze in a shot coming out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel to capture "that skyline that's so stunningly beautiful."
"I'm excited about coming home and making this new step in my artistic trajectory and artistic life in the same place where I started," Porter said. "My goal is to use a lot of my old mentors and friends and populate it with a lot of Pittsburgh-proud people. I'm working on that now to make sure it's really a love letter to Pittsburgh."
Porter also has a new album of pop songs coming out late this summer. Its first single should drop within the next few months. Plus, he's still set to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which hasn't happened yet due to COVID-19.
Then there's "Cinderella," a modern musical version of the classic fairy tale expected to be released in theaters July 16. The film stars pop star Camila Cabello as Cinderella and Porter as a genderless fairy godmother.
"Magic has no gender," he said. "It's always been called the fairy godmother, but it's not a person. It's a magical being. So it doesn't have any gender, it can be anything. That's the approach, fabulous godmother, aka the Fab G."
With all those projects looming and "Pose" ending, Porter is proud to be associated with films and shows that adhere to the ideals he set for himself back in 1994.
"It's like, you never forget. Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. We as artists, that's what our power is. I just love it."
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