Imagination is More than Identity: Billy Porter’s song collection Billy’s Back on Broadway

By Daniel Garrett

Billy Porter, Billy’s Back on Broadway
Produced by Rob Mounsey
Executive Producers Billy Porter and Joe D’Ambrosio
Concord Music Group, 2014

Thought given voice and gesture. When I think of drama, I think of a question that awaits an answer, an act that requires a response, a quest for meaning and power. Yes, in theater there is place, setting, characters, and dialogue, but there is more. There are allegory and parable; and philosophical and political problems. Pain and the promise of joy. Offense and the desire for justice. When I think of theater, I think of the work of Euripides, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Albert Camus, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Tom Stoppard, Ntozake Shange, Richard Foreman, August Wilson, Wallace Shawn, Tony Kushner, and Kia Corthron. Yet, there is another kind of theater that is no less distinctive and that is certainly more popular—and that theater has given us pleasure and pride and performers such as Bert Williams in vaudeville, Paul Robeson in Show Boat, and Sammy Davis Jr in Golden Boy and Ben Vereen in Pippin, and Gregory Hines in Sophisticated Ladies and Jelly’s Last Jam, and Brian Stokes Mitchell in Jelly’s Last Jam and Man of La Mancha. Billy Porter has made a splash with the theatrical production Kinky Boots, about a black male who likes wearing dresses and designs shoes, Lola (the show was inspired by a film of the same name, Kinky Boots, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor). Billy Porter has referred to his Lola as a gender illusionist. There is anguish and play and rebellion in a man wearing the clothes of a woman: spiritual fulfillment and political transgression. Yet, for Billy Porter that is only one role.

Billy Porter’s collection Billy’s Back on Broadway is an album worth considering in every way. It is more than any listener can anticipate. It has passion and truth. On Billy’s Back on Broadway, Kander and Ebb’s “But the World Goes Round” is a gutsy, jazzily show business life anthem. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” has a sincere but exuberant tone, with singer Billy Porter demonstrating terrific vocal control. His clear diction and warm tone in “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is part of a performance that allows him to lay remarkable claim to the song (I hear a little Al Jarreau in his singing). With a slow pace, and tender expression, both masculine and feminine, Lerner and Loewe’s “On the Street Where You Live” has pillowy—yes sentimental—strings but the song is about a recognizable infatuation, finding oneself in the street where one’s beloved resides—and Porter conveys all the affection, curiosity and reverie possible. One hears him and can see the scene. Billy Porter is a dynamic, impressive singer; but more than that he is a unique spirit.

Billy Porter, a Pittsburgh native, is a church boy, a school boy, a Broadway boy. Porter has been inspired by some of the glamorous entertainment stars of yesterday and today, including Sammy Davis Jr, Barbra Streisand, and Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the music for the Broadway show Kinky Boots in which Porter stars (and for which his stage performance won a Tony award). Yet, it is likely that even those who have heard of Porter and seen some of his work do not know how accomplished he is: he has appeared in various kinds of theatrical works, including Angels in America and The Merchant of Venice, and Jelly’s Last Jam and Topdog/Underdog; and he has directed theater too, including The Wiz and a combined tribute to Stephen Sondheim and William Shakespeare called Being Alive. Billy Porter has appeared in the films The Broken Hearts Club and The Intern and Noel, and on television as Little Richard in Shake Rattle & Roll. Porter, a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and also of a screenwriting program of the University of California in Los Angeles, is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon; and Porter has written a play, While I Yet Live, scheduled to premiere at Primary Stages.

Billy Porter’s career is remarkable as it is not easy to be an African American artist or thinker in any field, highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow. The competition is fierce and the heights as precarious as the depths are drowning. Can one anticipate encouragement or neglect? Collaboration? Recognition or failure? In Gwynne Kuhner Brown’s essay in the 2012 anthology Blackness in Opera from the University of Illinois Press, Gwynne Kuhner Brown describes how when management—composer, director, producer—respected the casts of Porgy and Bess and welcomed its members as collaborators, rather than treating them with distance or condescension, the productions were successful, despite the questionable racial content of the opera (and when the casts were less respected, the productions were less successful).  Culture is not an easy path, and yet African-American performers continue to walk it.

However, Kinky Books is Billy Porter’s first time on Broadway in thirteen years, according to an interview he gave to Karu F. Daniels of Ebony magazine’s online portal (July 5, 2013): “I’m glad that [people] think I’ve managed to keep my profile up, because I have, and I’ve worked hard at doing that. But just because you’re working does not mean you’re making money. That’s two very different things in show business,” said Porter, admitting that he faces the same difficulties of many African-American artists and intellectuals: “The reality is, there was nothing for me to do, nobody was calling—the phone wasn’t ringing.” One of his self-created projects was the autobiographical theatrical work Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am).

On Billy’s Back on Broadway, jazzily soulful self-affirmation is offered in “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” It has a wonderfully roots gospel close, with many voices and hands clapping. It was sung by Sammy Davis Jr, the multitalented boy vaudevillian—a dancer and singer, comedian and more—who became a controversial but popular entertainer on stage and screens large and small; and the song now is likely to give other boys what Sammy’s singing gave Billy. Billy’s Back on Broadway has been produced by Rob Mounsey, who has worked in different capacities—as musician, arranger, composer, and producer—with a wide range of artists, including Placido Domingo and Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Madonna, Idina Menzel, Sinead O’Connor, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, and Paul Simon.

“I’m in a place where I want everything in my life to mean something. For me, life is about being positive and hopeful, choosing to be joyful, choosing to be encouraging, choosing to be empowering. Once I chose that theme, the music chose itself,” said Billy Porter, while discussing Billy’s Back on Broadway, to Brandon Voss of the magazine The Advocate (posted online April 15, 2014).

Billy Porter, already, is a survivor. Being homosexual does not make anyone’s life easier: “I grew up in the Pentecostal church, where being gay wasn’t really allowed, so I had to get to the place where I understood that the only thing I could do was be the best version of myself,” Porter told The Advocate (April 15, 2014). He, as a boy, had worn his mother’s shoes and been sent to a shrink. Porter survived not only misunderstanding and bigotry but beatings by other children and sexual abuse. Porter had spoken of some of the difficulties to Ebony magazine (July 5, 2013): “When who you are naturally is not only considered a sin but you’re reviled for being that human being and you don’t have any control over it, there are lots of issues that come into play,” Porter confided about being openly gay. “And it takes a lot of presence, determination, courage and space to figure out how to land in that truth regardless of what anyone around you thinks about it.”

The Cyndi Lauper ballad “I’m Not My Father’s Son” that Porter sings on Billy’s Back on Broadway is about self-acceptance beyond parental expectation and disapproval. Imagine being black and gay and an artist. And religious. “I’m Not My Father’s Son.” Controversy. “The war between progressive and reactionary approaches to Black sexual politics is, in part, a battle over the Black male body. Disputes over Black masculinity have been at the heart of the republic since Black loins were examined for their support of the slave economy,” said public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson in “What Michael Sam Has Taught Us,” an article on homosexuality and the public declarations of public figures such as sportsman Michael Sam in the May 2014 Ebony magazine.

One thinks: James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (Doubleday, 1956) is centered on love’s betrayal, the failure of one man to accept his desire and love for another.  There could be said to be an implicit acceptance of bisexuality in the book, with a defense of the significance of homosexual love.  In the 2013 Richard Pryor biography, Furious Cool from Algonquin Books, written by the brothers David Henry and Joe Henry, there is a startling footnote in which they cite a memoir Pryor began in which he admitted to having had ten to twelve significant sexual encounters with men.  In fifty years or so, there has been a movement from ignorance and repression to experience and acceptance. Yet, after the prohibition of many years past and the liberalism and experimentation of recent years, there is now a rigid sense of sexuality, of either/or (rather than and)—with the rhetoric of “you are born this way.”  However, I suspect people come to homosexuality by different paths: instinct, friendship, love, experiment, gender confusion, molestation, some paths positive and some paths negative.

Yet the conflict between fathers and sons is an ancient one and not limited to ignorance or arguments regarding sexuality. It is there in ancient sacred texts. It is in literature—such as Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. One wants to be accepted and one wants to be oneself, even if that self is, for others, too free, difficult, and strange. When young, one’s mind is full of contradictions: the optimism of the national ethos, the ambivalence and pragmatism of daily life, the anarchy of play, and the chilling realism or tragic symbolism of art; or variations of any of these. (If one does not have a close, familiar example of competence and success, one can be or feel crippled.) Youth is a time of discovery and experiment—and rebellion.

“Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy” is a duet that Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland once performed and it is here, on Billy’s Back on Broadway, performed by Billy Porter with Cyndi Lauper: Lauper seems to start simply and slowly, but she grows stronger and Porter is strong throughout. “Lucky Be A Lady” has a slow, dramatic opening, then sprightly uptempo chorus, a rhythm-and-blues treatment. Rodgers and Sondheim’s “Take the Moment” is a ballad of sentimental and philosophical encouragement. From Porter’s much loved musical Dreamgirls, Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s “I Am Changing” is gospel-inflected soul interpretation of a song about growth, vulnerability, and relationship. Obviously, Billy Porter knows a great deal about growth.

`Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.