- OnStage New York Columnist
The first time I saw Billy Porter onstage was during his award-winning performance as Lola in Kinky Boots. The second time I saw him he was when he was singing the paint off the walls in the Music Box Theatre during the shamefully short run of Shuffle Along. Recently I had the fortune of attending the release party for his new album, "Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers" and in keeping with the previous two times I'd seen him, he brought tears to my eyes by the end of the evening.
When asked about the purpose and meaning of his most recent album he spoke simply and profoundly about love and connection in a time of disconnect. He referred to love as an act of resistance as we try to understand people who are different from us. He said artists are the people we need now to reach across the aisle and begin the discussion, however difficult. He said it's more important now than ever to come together with love, because that's the only way we'll fix the issues we as a society currently face.
He told the rapt audience at Build Studio NYC that theatre saved his life. Heads nodded in vehement agreement when he said he spent years trying to fit in, only to hear that what he was wouldn't work, before realizing that he could make a new mold. He began to understand that he could simply be the first and not have to fit into anyone else's shoes. I wish every new artist could have heard him say, "You must honor the truth of who you are, for better or for worse" because it's something that everyone (artist or no) need to hear.
From the audience came the question, "What gets Billy Porter out of bed in the morning?" He took a moment before answering and grew emotional as he shared a story about his mother and her unfailing strength facing a degenerative disease when everyone was telling her to give up. Not surprisingly, Mr. Porter is his mother's son in strength, character and love. His unflagging energy and charge to change the world through art are clear the minute you're within fifty feet of him. He's an example of what every artist should strive to be.
I've always wanted to talk to him about Shuffle Along. Love Kinky Boots as I may, it was his performance of "I Got the Lowdown Blues" that I'll never forget. Those three minutes and forty-five seconds were the best master classes in acting I've ever had and I feel sorry for anyone who didn't get that chance to see the show and his theatre-shaking number. He stood in front of a rapt audience and handed each and every one of us a bit of his soul. That's a gift that many are capable of and few have the courage to do. He does.
At the after party I downed a quick cocktail in the hopes of finding some courage to shake the hand and speak to a man I greatly admire. I fought through the throngs of people clamoring to speak with him and nearly made it to him before other admirers swallowed him up, so instead of lurking and staring in the corner, I left. As I walked out to Broadway and 4th, I thought maybe it was best I wasn't able to speak with him because it was likely that all sense and eloquence would have failed me in that moment. I've said it in my head numerous times since that night so I guess I'll say it here:
Mr. Porter, I've long admired your work. The world needs more artists like you to begin important conversations and to have them with understanding and love. I'm so grateful that theatre changed your life because the two times I've had the pleasure of seeing you on stage, you have changed my life. Thank you.