When Billy Porter accepted the role of Lola in “Kinky Boots,” he knew it would be a big step, but didn’t count on the role as a sassy drag queen to propel him to the 2013 Tony Award for best actor in a musical.
“In order to survive in this business, you have to release expectations as much as you possibly can and make it about the work that’s in front of you,” Porter explained. “While everybody has dreams of this kind of success, that’s not what the motivation is. It’s not sustainable. Did I hope for it? Yes. Could I have ever imagined it? Yes.”
Porter is a performer who is dedicated to his art. In this case, it meant hours of make-up and rehearsal in the fierce high-heeled boots at the center of the story, based on a British movie and adapted for the stage by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper.
“Well, I’ve always had an appreciation because I’m gay and been out since the ‘80s. My appreciation (for the art of drag) was already in place. I found it to be empowering, in terms of sexuality—the feminine vs. the masculine. Embracing both sides has made me, Billy, a more comfortable and confident human being,” he said of the experience.
Even though Porter will reprise his role on Broadway later this spring, the multitalented actor/writer/director has plenty to keep him busy.
He is currently directing the critically acclaimed production of George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum” at the Huntington Theater at Boston University. The play “satirically skewers” the African American diaspora in 11 vignettes.
“Naturally, I’ve enjoyed the profits of discovery. Figuring out how to make something work has been interesting to me. That side of my brain really responds to the responsibilities of a director, guiding the ship and making the story,” he said.
Porter’s also developing a television series based on the lives of four gay African-American friends living in Harlem who “struggle to close the chasm between sex and intimacy.”
He elaborated, “As a mature gay man, I’m also interested in commercial gay narratives that aren’t just about coming out. We’re ready for stories that aren’t just about that initiation point. Now that you’re out, now that you know, what are you going to do about and how are you going to live? We’re looking to make it happen.”
As Porter looks back on his career, he admits being black and gay has been a challenge, even in the world of show business.
“It’s just hard in general, but it’s hard being black and being gay. Both are difficult, but the only way to move through something like that is to change the narrative in your head…. it’s not fun, it’s not fair, but you understand it exists and you move through it. You can’t accept it and wallow in it,” he said.
Now at a pinnacle in his career, Porter offers this advice to aspiring performers:
“The only thing I know for sure is the respect of your craft and how that manifests is the most important part. We live in a world where the arts are very often considered extracurricular,” he said. “Fundamentally I feel a respect of the craft is lacking. You have to study and to train. I went to a traditional drama school and studied traditionally, but not everyone has to go to school per se, but they need to be fundamentally true to the basics and grounded.”
Tony Award-winner Billy Porter appears Friday, March 20 and Saturday, March 21 at 8 p.m. at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, to conclude Matthew Lombardo and Rick Murray’s South Beach Broadway Series. Tickets are $50-125 at ColonyTheaterMiamiBeach.com.