How August Wilson Made Kinky Boots Star Billy Porter a Playwright

News   How August Wilson Made Kinky Boots Star Billy Porter a Playwright With his debut as a playwright, the Tony Award and Grammy Award-winning star of Kinky Boots presents a new look at black life in Pittsburgh in the Primary Stages production of While I Yet Live. This inspiration came from playwright August Wilson.

Billy Porter
Billy Porter

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"I always do double duty, honey," Billy Porter chuckled in response to a comment about juggling his acclaimed role in Broadway's smash hit musical Kinky Boots and ironing out the kinks of his debut as a playwright with Primary Stages' world premiere of While I Yet Live, which opened Oct. 12 at the Duke on 42nd Street.

"I'm involved in every aspect of the play," he explained during last week's previews — admitting to only taking two weeks off from performing the demanding role of Lola, the cross-dressing star of the show that won him his first Tony Award.

For his latest turn, the Pittsburgh native has brought a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story to the stage with Sheryl Kaller directing a cast including theatre luminaries such as Lillias White, S. Epatha Merkerson, Sharon Washington and Kevyn Morrow, among others.

Known as a formidable talent behind the lights, Porter previously took on behind the scenes work of director with 2007's groundbreaking musical revue Being Alive (infusing the mastery of Stephen Sondheim's with jazz, R&B, hip-hop and gospel at Philadelphia's Suzanne Roberts Theater), and with a 2008 revival of Once on This Island for the Los Angeles-based Reprise Theatre Company. But his incarnation as a full-fledged playwright, according to him, was born out of necessity to create new work opportunities — and an absence of his likeness in August Wilson's storied works, which are widely regarded as the greatest exploration of African-American life in contemporary theatre. "I love August Wilson and he is one of my favorite playwrights," the Carnegie Mellon University alum explained regarding the late, great playwright of critically-acclaimed works such as Fences, Jitney, The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, who died in 2005, was also a proud native son of Pittsburgh, which was used as the setting of his ten landmark plays chronicling black life throughout each decade of the 20th century.

Lillias White and Larry Powell
Lillias White and Larry Powell Photo by James Leynse

"I grew up in Pittsburgh and I saw every play there of his from the time I was a teenager and what resonated the most with me is that he was talking about my neighborhood very often, one of the neighborhoods I grew up in, and he was talking about my people and never once did I see a representation of me on the stage.

"Never once in 10 plays did I see one person that actually looked like me," Porter underscored. "And by look I mean metaphorically to feel like me: being gay, being out, being Christian and being that thing that our community has a real problem with talking about."

"That pushed me to a place of [thinking], 'If someone else is not going to talk about it, I can't sit around and wait for other people to tell my story,'" he further explained his motivation. "I have to at least try to tell it myself.' And this is even before I knew I could write. I figured, well maybe I could just try to tell it myself."

The journey to writing While I Yet Live was seven years in the making. Porter, himself, under the advisement of his mentor, Tony Award-winning theatrical whiz George C. Wolfe, went back to school to study screenwriting at UCLA during a 13-year dry spell away from The Great White Way.

The story itself — like his life — isn't light-hearted fare either. Though, While I Yet Live explores the perils of a young man experiencing homophobia in his church community, his religious mother's struggle with his blooming sexuality and the parade of colorful characters who shaped his upbringing, the story is "fiction based on real life events." The two-act play is an emotional roller coaster ride featuring spiritually, emotionally and physically disabled characters coming to terms with secrets, sins and sickness of the past, including molestation, adultery and deep-seated resentment. It's the story of a young, gay, black man and the women who love him — sometimes conditionally. Loads of Biblical verses are spoken and challenged throughout Porter's provocative prose. "It's not verbatim, its not a documentary," Porter explained, adding that he used the ideas from his real life. "I took the journey that I had and I hopefully crafted a story that is interesting and different and will hold the audience's attention and hopefully possibly shift a change in their consciousness when they see it."

If his previous work as a performer and director is any indication of what his role as a playwright will be, Porter should have no problem accomplishing that mission.

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