Salvation on the Stage

Salvation on the Stage

Billy Porter’s frank one-man performance about a life of being different

“I just want to try out a few ideas,” Porter explained. “My costume now is a little too flashy; my story should take the front seat, according to G.C.W. That’s George, of course,” referring to George Wolfe. “He’s the one I trust, like my other father.”

Porter’s show is a virtuoso survey of his life, beginning with his years as a vocally gifted child in Homewood, Pennsylvania, leading to his eventual appearances in three Broadway shows (“Miss Saigon,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and “Grease”), and including a disastrous L.A. interlude as an aspiring recording star.

The dark leitmotif running through the show is the sexual abuse Porter suffered at the hands of his stepfather, which instilled pervasive fear and a self-loathing in him, not to mention overwhelming guilt for being gay.

On the stage at Joe’s Pub, running his mouth, singing and dancing up a storm, backed by a tight combo and two adorable singers, Porter is a jaw-dropping dervish of energy and gorgeously loud vocalism. Asked how he sustains that energy, he said, “I’m onstage for an hour and 40, and I ain’t that young, let’s just make that clear. I still look cute and fresh-faced, but I’m 35, and it hurts now, where it never hurt before. But it’s what I love and have always done. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where it was all about the work. I learned early how to focus and understand that hard work is the point, and that fuels me, believe it or not.”

Porter could always sing, and calls his beautiful voice both a blessing and a curse “because everything in my life was about my voice. When I lost my voice with my acid reflex problem in Los Angeles, I came back and studied with Joan Lader, who really focuses on vocal problems and she helped me get back on track. But I really couldn’t sing for seven months. It was horrible: I really thought I was going to die. I would wake up and couldn’t even speak more than two hours before I would get severe throat pains.”

According to Porter, the acid reflex problem was completely stress-related.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love L.A.—it’s so much fun—but I went out there for a very specific reason, and my spirit was out there for another,” he explained. “I eventually needed to be in the middle of all that shit to realize that I don’t care about any of it. I would love to have a home in the hills, be rich. But that is not the focal point of my life, so it enabled me to release a lot of my fractured dreams I was having a hard time letting go of, understanding why I wasn’t Usher.”

Feeling boxed in, his film, “The Broken Hearts Club,” liberated him from that corner.

“When I went to Sundance with it, that was the first time I saw myself onscreen that big, and every time I said a line, the whole audience burst into laughter,” Porter said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, right, that’s what I am, that’s what I do, a character actor.’ I don’t have to act like the uber-masculine, sexy leading man.”

Asked about his film’s co-star, Dean Cain, Porter cries, “You know what, I’m sick of people asking me about Dean Cain! Fuck Dean Cain!” he cried, before laughing. “No, he was sweet. You want him to be an asshole—Princeton grad and gorgeous, but he’s a sweet, sweet man.”

As far as being both black and gay in a notoriously intolerant industry, Porter said, “I tried to act like it wasn’t there in the beginning, but the way hip-hop culture, which now sort of rules everything, is, I’m already gay, just because I speak in complete sentences and don’t adopt the hip-hop vernacular. It doesn’t have anything to do with who I sleep with; ‘gay’ is also a euphemism for being uncool. I’m not saying that hip-hop people aren’t intelligent; they’re really smart because they know ‘Everybody else wants me to appear like I’m dumb, so I’ll do that to get my money.’ But I was a faggot when I was five. It didn’t have anything to do with sex, but everything to do with being different. I was always naturally like this: even my family used to make fun of me for speaking so properly. ‘Who are you?’”

Porter’s affable bravado cracks just a tad when asked about his love life: “Ha ha! Do I have a partner? Um… yeah, I do, actually, I do! It’s sort of new-ish,” admitting that after his last relationship, he has a better understanding for the challenges being with another man presents. “But now I’m dealing with it every night on the American stage.”

Porter has just recorded a new CD, “At the Corner of Broadway and Soul,” which he is selling in the Public’s lobby.

“I just had to do it myself, take the reins and put it out there,” he said. “Let the chips fall; I’m always gonna eat and have a roof over my head and be a creative artist and that’s the most important thing. I’m also trying to hold it down for the faggots, honey, in a good way. People will either get my show or won’t. But now, even the older people in the audience, forced to sit very close—and it’s loud—are beginning to realize that it’s how I communicate. You’re gonna see a show about a black faggot, so get ready, ‘cause we’re loud.”