News Column

Billy Porter still kicking up heels after winning Tony Award

June 14, 2013

YellowBrix

June 14--Nothing much is different in the life of Billy Porter since Sunday. Sure, there are the congratulatory phone calls and texts overrunning his phone and the even bigger ovation at performances of "Kinky Boots." The main difference now is the title "Tony Award winner" appearing in front of his name.

"That's the big change, and you know, the idea that one can manifest one's own destiny by staying focused and present. This is proof positive of that. That's lovely," he said by phone, five hours before curtain for the Thursday night "Kinky Boots" show. Winning a Tony for best lead actor in a musical hasn't changed the fact there are still eight shows a week -- and in high heels much of the time -- as Lola, the drag queen who helps change the course of a failing shoe factory and the life of its young owner. The show won six Tonys, including best musical, which wasn't always a sure thing, not with many critics picking British import "Matilda" and its star, Bertie Carvel.

Still, the Pittsburgh native put down the shiny Tony Award just seconds after it was handed to him, pulled out a piece of paper and began to read.

"I was just prepared -- and hoping," he said. "You never know, it can go in any direction. It's a heady, weird sort of thing. You want to win, but it doesn't really matter when the work is great."

Mr. Porter's Tony dreams began when he saw the awards show as an 11-year-old and the cast of "Dreamgirls" blew him away. He said he was in the kitchen at the time, which takes us to a project near to his heart, a play he has written that will have a workshop at New York's Second Stage Theatre this summer.

"It's called 'While I Yet Live,' and it's a kitchen-sink drama about me and my family, set in Pittsburgh. It spans 16 years, from 1994 to 2008," Mr. Porter said. The workshop includes actress S. Epatha Merkerson of "Law & Order" fame and a two-time Tony nominee, who will reprise the part of Mr. Porter's mother, Cloerinda Ford, whom she portrayed when the play was produced by Barnard College in April 2012.

Mr. Porter was accompanied to the Tonys by his sister, MaryMartha Ford, while his mother held a party at home on the North Side.

"I spoke to her around 1 in the morning when I could finally get to a quiet place," Mr. Porter said. "We were able to talk; we laughed, we cried, we praised. It was very great. [Sharing the night with my sister] was the most fun, and you should see the pictures of her. She's gorgeous on the runway."

Now that "Tony winner" is part of his resume, Mr. Porter hopes his proposed television and film projects will get a boost. Lola came along after a long dry spell for roles, a time when he concentrated on other projects. He has been a director, writer, choreographer, producer and teacher, and along the way continued to share his vocal talents with concerts and recordings.

"I just felt like the focus on the work took the pressure of having to win awards off of the table, because ultimately it can't be about winning awards. It has to be about the work you are putting out there," he said. "Winning awards is just sort of like icing on the cake. It wasn't that I didn't dream of it. It's just that it was no longer at the forefront of my mind. The most important thing became what kind of work am I putting out into the world."

He emphasized that his focus continues to be "staying balanced and present and healthy," so that at 43 he can keep pace with a "Kinky" cast including Tony nominees Stark Sands and Annaleigh Ashford. It was announced Wednesday that the show will launch a national tour in September 2014 in Las Vegas, but for now, the sexy heels are strutting on Broadway, and Tony winner Billy Porter is the main man in drag.

The night he won, when host Neil Patrick Harris' opening number included a line about how well he sports his tight costumes and the camera showed him laughing aloud, is on standby in the DVR of his mind.

"The whole evening was kind of spectacular," Mr. Porter said. "I was present enough to enjoy it, and I'm really happy about that. I'll remember it for the rest of my life."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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(c)2013 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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