Billy Porter knows success comes to those who endure
“I was supposed to be a statistic,” Tony and Grammy Award-winning performer Billy Porter says, stripped down to multistriped socks, knit boxers and a white T-shirt backstage at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.
He picks at a brown boxed dinner that's been brought to his dressing room, a cup of steaming hot tea and carafe of thick, gooey honey within reach. His words come matter-of-factly, ended with a period with no need for further elaboration. When asked to do so, his eyes grow wide, allowing the “duh” to hang in the air for just a moment.
“I'm a black, gay man in the ghetto of Pittsburgh. I was not supposed to make it. It's like they counted us out a long time ago.”
The Tony Award-winning Broadway star keeps returning home to hang out, dip in, make his presence known as someone who made it, hoping to inspire others to follow suit. Life wasn't a catapult from 14-year-old Pittsburgh CLO Mini-Star to international spotlight. He grew up poor, although that word is subjective.
“It never felt like something that was a roadblock to me because I had so many angels in Pittsburgh,” he says.
Those angels — including Mini-Stars founder Joe Franze, Lenore Nemetz and Peggy Hughes-Ruslander — showed up for Porter in ways he wasn't fully aware of until after landing in New York. “That wasn't my experience early in life,” he says, becoming emotional.
These days, a lot of people show up for Billy Porter. His “Broadway and Soul” performance at the Cabaret on Oct. 17 sold out so quickly that a second, late-night show was added to the bill.
When he enters the stage, a crowd that ranges from students to senior citizens is at his feet, their hands in the air before he releases the first note. When he does, the room swoons audibly.
For the next hour, he'll string together a floor-stomping set that includes titles such as “I've Gotta Be Me,” “But the World Goes 'Round,” “I'm Not My Father's Son,” “Don't Rain on My Parade,” and “Love is on the Way.” Billed as epitomizing his experiences on the Great White Way, he's introspective about the relationship with the industry.
“You can't ever sit back on your heels. (Otherwise) it becomes abusive. You're rejected every day, and that's just a part of the nature of the business. That's something that we accept as artists going in, and if you can't accept that rejection is a part of it, then you can't embrace the rejection to then therefore not take it personally, to be able to stay long enough for your turn to come up.
“The race is not given to the swift, nor to the strong, but to the one who endures to the end. … It's a tool to remember for all parts of life.”
Even with his success, endurance remains essential. He recently had to place his mother, Cloerinda Porter-Ford, into the care of a nursing home. Then came the devastating news that “Shuffle Along,” the 10-time Tony Award-nominated musical in which he scored an above-the-title credit, was being shuttered a year prematurely to coincide with co-star Audra McDonald's maternity leave.
Still, the Billy Porter show must go on. In the spring comes a new album collaboration with next-big-things that deconstructs and modernizes the works of renowned composer Richard Rodgers. He's also writing again, penning a play about the AIDS epidemic that rampaged the gay community.
It's nearly 11 p.m. when his performance at the Cabaret begins to wind down. Initiating audience participation, he slips on his iconic kinky boots, segues into Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On” — also his commentary on current politics — and brings the mic to the willing. Young, old, left, right, Louboutin heels and New Balance sneakers, together they harmonize.
“I've always lived on my own terms,” he says. “What changed is, now I'm making money doing it. No one was paying attention before. Me living in my truth wasn't something that people wanted.
“What I've learned from this is that the ‘can' and the ‘can't' comes from inside. You can't need outside validation. You must make the decision to do it, and you must do it yourself.”
Kate Benz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.