A Director's Vision: Billy Porter in Conversation

Billy Porter, a Tony and Grammy award-winning performer, returns to the Huntington as a director following his acclaimed productions of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. In the following interview, Porter speaks about how he embraced his own identity as an artist and how he approaches directing this new play.

Director Billy Porter

Charles Haugland (Director of New Work): What attracted you to working on
The Purists?

Billy Porter: What I love about the play is how it speaks to the idea of loving each other through our differences; it explores the idea of choosing to understand your fellow man, your neighbor, the person who is different from you. We are in a real crisis socially right now, and it is always up to artists to lead the way. In this play, we see what it looks like for people choosing to get along; it’s a choice. It doesn't just happen. That's what I love; you see these people work towards something better.

CH: Are you a purist about anything?

BP: Yes, I am a purist about a lot of things — but I am really a purist when it comes to singing and being a musician. I've been very disappointed — often, not always — with the standards in the music business being lowered so much. Because if you're going to be a singer, I want you to be able to sing. Period.

CH: Does this play have you reconsidering any of your purism?

BP: Listen, I have already gotten to a place where I can understand why an artist who can't sing is famous. I get it; I still don't like it. My perspective is somewhat like the character of Gerry in the play — I can understand it, and even honor it, but it's still not my thing. But I can have my thing, you can have yours, he can have his — and we can all co-exist. That's a question that the play is asking — why do people live in a place of lack? Because they perceive themselves as lacking, therefore they want to hold on to something. But there's space for everybody to have a piece of all of it.

CH: What part of directing is most exciting to you? Why is that something you
continue to gravitate towards?

BP: I get to make stuff! I get to collaborate. As an actor, we are generally at the mercy of someone else's vision — not that that's a problem, but I have vision of my own, both creatively and artistically. As a director, I get to show that to the world in a more direct way.

CH: One of the things I have always admired about you is that — no matter
whether you're acting, directing, recording and arranging music, writing —
every piece of art is unique, but then it also all contributes to the overall
message you want to put forward.

BP: Yes, that is important to me. It was about 25 years ago; I was watching Oprah, and she had Maya Angelou on. They were talking about service. I was at a crossroads in my career. As the naive artist coming from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the only thing I saw as the goal was stardom. "I want to be a star." But what does that mean? And why? It's self congratulatory, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately selfish. It doesn't have anything to do with the gifts you've been given becoming of service. When service is the goal, the rest of it falls in place. Then my question became: how can I be an artist of service in an industry that is inherently narcissistic? It hit me like a ton of bricks: oh, the very thing that everybody is telling you is a liability — your gayness, your black queerness — is actually a service, if you stay in that. If you don't forsake that, if you choose to honor your authenticity, instead of some promise of fame, then you'll be happier and more grounded. Then also, the art will change — and it did. Everything I am a part of at this point in my life is about a reflection of that service.

CH: What's next for you?

BP: I'm writing a book; I just got a book deal, so I am writing a memoir called Unprotected. I am doing a movie this fall, which I can't say on record what it is yet. I'm doing a workshop of a musical that I'm developing. I'm directing a movie. It's all exploding in a very interesting and different way than I ever have experienced, so I am just trying to breathe, and be present, and do all the things. All of them!

CH: How do you stay centered?

BP: Sleep. Meditation. My husband. Making sure I have time for my real life. I'm working on it.

Cast of THE PURISTS. Photo: Nile Hawver

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