Tony Award winner Billy Porter talks arts activism, his play on ‘the lost generation’ of gay men… and returning to ‘Kinky Boots’

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Iconic soulstress Nina Simone questioned her place in the world as a black woman after learning of four young African-American girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. She responded defiantly with “Mississippi Goddamn,” a political anthem that acknowledged, “All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me.”

Sociopolitical demonstrations have long been woven into various musical genres — even Katy Perry’s ironically shiny single, this year’s “Chained to the Rhythm,” underscores, like “Mississippi Goddamn,” continued minority suppression.

In 2013, Billy Porter left his mark on socially-conscious art while originating the role of Lola, a drag queen who finds common ground with a shoemaker in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. The role garnered him a Tony. This year, just days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Porter married his longtime partner, Adam Smith — in part because he wondered if he would be able to after Trump took office.

But acts of sociopolitical defiance in the face of a minority-deserting administration extend also to his latest album, Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers. Among the classic selections: the hopeful “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, intentionally released as the album’s first single on Trump’s Inauguration Day. We asked him about that, and what else he has cooking.

— Chris Azzopardi

Dallas Voice: Why end the album with “Edelweiss”?  Billy Porter: If you’ve ever seen The Sound of Music, “Edelweiss” is the song they sing as they try to escape Austria during the Nazi regime. I was making a very specific statement about Inauguration Day — that we need to pray and we need to engage, and we need to be visible and we need to be like that Edelweiss flower and still bloom in the darkest of times, in the coldest of times.

Billy-Porter-20175What’s your past relationship with Richard Rodgers’ music?  He is from the Golden Era of musical theater, when musical-theater music was what was on the radio. He had managed to crack through the Zeitgeist in a way that not a lot of composers can because still, even to this day, his music is very popular, so everybody knows a Richard Rodgers song. When you hear how we deconstruct the material and try to update it for a new millennium, you’ll hear them in a totally different way than before.

Which song of Richard’s do you feel closest to?  Probably “Edelweiss,” just because it means so much every time I sing it, and it makes me feel like I’m contributing. For some reason, society today thinks that artists should just shut up and not talk about politics, and I don’t really understand that, because we’ve always been the people who illuminate — we speak truth to power in creative ways and create conversations and can change hearts and minds. So I’m going back to that. You know, I’m just interested in the president not lying. I’m just interested in that. To go from what we had to this is just horrifying.

As a recently married man, how does it feel to be “official” in Trump’s America?  Well, you know, we got married before he took office for that very reason, because we just wanted to make that clear. I mean, it’s weird because it’s my job, you know? My job is to try to reach across and speak to people who we don’t normally speak to and come to an understanding. Music is universal, and it breaks down walls and barriers.

You say it’s your “job” to reach across the aisle — does that feel even truer after doing Kinky Boots?  Yeah, because when I was doing Kinky Boots the first time, it was about being in the middle of change that was moving in our direction. Now, it’s about making sure our rights don’t get rolled back. It’s a different climate. It’s a lesson in understanding that it’s ongoing and forever. You have to fight for the rights and then defend the rights forever. If we didn’t learn that before, we know it now.

Are you going to any red-state cities on this tour?  This first leg, yeah, I am. I’m going to Florida and Indiana, and some other places all over the country. I’m excited to do it because I lead with love, and I feel like no matter what disagreement there may be, I’m leading with love. I’m here to hear you. I’m here to talk about it. And I’m here to actually have rational conversation.

But I’m not interested in having irrational conversations, and that needs to get called out. I think we have sort of begun the first steps of doing that — recalibrating. The press thought he was such a joke that they didn’t pay attention to him, really, and then he got away from us, and the world is in chaos. So, it’s a far more political show than I have been doing recently.

Political how?  I have some protest music in the old-school tradition of the ones who came before me, like the Nina Simones, the Harry Belafontes and Curtis Mayfields — that movement of music that was about educating and speaking truth to power and making sure our voices were being heard. That kind of art needs to come back.

Billy-Porter-20171Tell me how you wound up re-imagining these songs within an R&B framework.  It just kind of came together. It started out as an idea. We did a concert back in 2009 at a theater in Los Angeles, where the focus was deconstructed arrangements. We went from jazz all the way through to modern hip-hop, and so when the album came around, I thought we should really focus on being fresh and innovative in terms of sound. I thought the R&B and soul versions of these was something we hadn’t really heard a lot about.

In the early aughts, you told The New York Times that you’re one of few Broadway performers to have an R&B album.  That’s why I did this album, because that’s really the biggest point I’m making: which is, we sing like this. We do it like this. And we do it eight times a week. So, wake up and listen, ’cause this album stands up next to any R&B soul album ever made. It stands up to it, and I know that. The new album, I’m really proud of it. We just need to embrace it and write more material now, and I think Hamilton kicked that door down. I’m writing a contemporary-gospel musical right now — we have to show up and create the material.

How did the idea come to you?  I’ve always wanted to do it; I just needed a way in, because religion can be so polarizing. How do we remain authentic to the genre while embracing people who don’t necessarily believe in the language of the doctrine that gospel music sort of came out of? How we tell it — telling the audience and teaching them how to hear it, teaching how to watch it — is very important. How do we teach people how to watch us? How do we teach people how to hear us that embraces them and not makes them feel alienated? The focus is love. That’s what’s in the room, and it doesn’t matter what life you live outside of there. We’re talking about us right here, right now. I don’t know if that’s gonna work, but that was the way that I could write it. And it’s not about religion at all, by the way. It just happens to exist inside of the music that represents religion.

How far into it are you?  I just finished the first draft, and I’m writing it with [gospel performer and composer] Kurt Carr. We got about 17 songs, which is good. I also have a play that’s in development at the Public Theater about what I call “the lost generation” of gay men my age — 47 — who came out in the ’80s and went straight to the frontlines to fight for our lives and here we are 30 years later. Those of us who survived have PTSD and we know how to fight a lot, but we don’t really know how to live. I’m excited to be talking about that in creative ways.

Both of these pieces sound very close to you.  Yeah. Very, very, very close.

This piece on the lost generation — what’s your role in its development?  I wrote it. It’s in development right now, so it’s the very beginning stages. But I’m also sort of speaking about it because that’s how shit happens — you gotta speak it into action.

Do you ever miss Kinky Boots?  I do. Especially now, because I feel like doing Kinky Boots in this political climate is an act of resistance.

And it’s the best kind, because, once again, it reaches out with love. It leads with love — it’s art, so it opens up a different side of the blinds. People hear differently, people see differently.

Do you have any interest in ever returning to that role?  I do, and I may at some point in the very near future. And that’s all I’ll say about that!

Late last year Vice President Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton and actor Brandon Victor Dixon spoke out during the curtain call about whether this administration will protect minorities. If Pence attended Kinky Boots, how do you think you would’ve handled the situation?  I think Brandon was unbelievable. It’s like, you represent us, you work for us and I hope that you remember that. There are a lot of people who are nervous about what you may or may not do. The politics you ran on do not feel like they include us, so we just want you to know that as you move forward. Remember us.

The thing about Trump’s response was, you can’t be a dictator, boo. You can’t. We’re not gonna do that. Whatever it takes, we’ve done it before, so pull it together, people, and let’s start fighting. We gotta come together.

Visit InstanTEA at DallasVoice.com to read more interviews we conducted with musicians this week.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 12, 2017.