An interview with Director Billy Porter

Billy Porter is a theatrical polymath – from his Tony Award-winning performance as Lola in the musical Kinky Boots, to the 2014 premiere of his play While Yet I Live at Primary Stages, to his upcoming Live from Lincoln Center concert on PBS. He juggles directing, writing, and performing, often simultaneously.

As rehearsals began, he spoke with dramaturg Charles Haugland about his relationship to The Colored Museum and his directorial approach to the play.

Billy Porter

Can you tell me about when you first encountered the play?

It was 1986 when it was written and first produced, and I was looking for monologues to audition for colleges. One of my teachers gave it to me, and told me it would be one of the most important plays I’d ever read. It was breathtaking and shocking because I had never really seen black people onstage having these conversations. It was intelligent and new, and at the same time, it was a comment on all of the things my friends and I would talk about in terms of being black in America and being black in general. The most striking piece was “The Gospel According to Miss Roj.” I was 15 or 16, coming out, and she was an empowered and defiant gay cross-dresser. There was no apology for her, and that changed my life.

How did you then come to meet George C. Wolfe?

After around 15 years of living and working in New York, I finally got a job with him, doing Radiant Baby, the Keith Haring musical at The Public Theater in 2003. Working with George was everything that I had anticipated it being and dreamed it would be; all I ever wanted was to be in the room with him and see what it was that made him tick and  hopefully suck some of that genius for myself, if I’m being honest.

How would you describe George?

A mad genius. He’s always the smartest person in the room, and his level of respect for the craft and for artists in general is such an example to live by. George was the person who really challenged me to go further than I thought I was capable of going, than I thought I was allowed to go. Talking with him was the first time I talked about being a writer and being a director. After I was fired from the revival of Little Shop of Horrors out of town, I called him in a panic; he gave me a residency at The Public Theater [where he was artistic director]; I had my own desk, and I was able to write and be creative. I developed my one person show under his tutelage, Ghetto Superstar, which we did in 2005. During the residency, I also met Peter DuBois, so we were there being mentored by George simultaneously.

Did you ask George for advice on directing this production?

One of the things that he said was that he wrote the play for it to be a celebration and an exorcism simultaneously, which I just love. He also changed one word. I went to him and I said, “I would love to look at the language in one of these pieces, and make it clear to audiences that we are talking about today.” He changed one word, and it’s just genius. I’m not going to tell you ahead of time what word it is.

Do you think the overall message of the play has evolved since its premiere?

The message has always been timeless. While there are many things that are different and better, there are still so many times in this country where you just look and go, really? We’re still having a conversation as to whether or not anyone’s civil rights are valid? So we have to make laws to give people their civil rights. One of the things the play presents are stereotypes, or stereotypes/archetypes, and then says “all of these ‘stereotypes,’ whether you like them or not, are human.” There’s a human component to everyone who lives and breathes on the planet, and when will we be able to then move our response to the things that we don’t understand, to the people we don’t understand. How do we transform our response to that into something that’s also human? To actively want to suppress me because you don’t agree with me is never the conversation that I’m ever interested in having. You don’t have to understand me. But you don’t get to treat me like an animal because of that.

Can you delve into that a bit? George has spoken in interviews about how some people feel that the stereotypes that the play invokes are too painful or are considered too taboo to even bring up. Why do you think it’s important that the play does that?

What I think is arresting about what he does is that it is always in your face from the start, and it never lets anybody off the hook. The uncomfortable stuff is uncomfortable for a reason, and that’s why we’re here, to have the discussion. I love theatre for that, and I love George specifically because in his work, that’s always the focus. The focus is to illuminate something, so that when the audience comes out they’re different from what they were when they went in.

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