The Cabaret Beat

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Chatting with the author and star of Ghetto Superstar, Grease!'s Billy Porter.
Billy Porter
Billy Porter

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August Wilson has made a mission out of telling the tales of the African American experience in Pittsburgh. But, according to Iron City native Billy Porter, there’s one story the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and this season’s Gem of the Ocean has left out—his.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Porter says, “Wilson is brilliant. But, man, is that guy macho! I mean, I grew up in that neighborhood he’s always writing about,” says the Carnegie Mellon graduate, “and I’m like, ‘Where’s my story? Where’s the gay story?!’” Fortunately, that missing chapter will be added to the theatrical cannon when Porter opens his autobiographical solo show Ghetto Superstar: The Man That I Am on February 28 at the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub. (His second CD, "Live from Joe’s Pub: At the Corner of Broadway & Soul," will be released in conjunction with the premiere of Ghetto Superstar.)

“The title,” Porter says, “came out of the need to find something that resonated in an ironic way. On paper, having all of these elements in one person—being from the Pittsburgh ghetto, growing up in the Pentecostal Church, being a preacher, being gay, moving into theatre—don’t look like they’d ever work,” he laughs. “But hey, that’s who I am! When I tell people I’m from the ghetto,” Porter pauses, “they laugh. And I’m like, ‘No, really, I am!’ Just like Tupac, Snoop-Dog, the gangs, drugs, guns—I am from the real ghetto. I just took a different path.”

At least five years in the making, the singer—whose impressive vocal range can reach the rafters of Little Richard while swooping the silken slopes of Johnny Mathis—credits his time in Los Angeles as integral to transforming his life and creating Ghetto Superstar. “It was my ‘40 days and 40 nights in the desert,’” he recalls. “It just wasn’t happening in New York,” says the performer whose Broadway credits include Grease!, Miss Saigon and Five Guys Named Moe. “I needed to get out of my comfort zone, spend some time with myself and grow up. So, I took myself out to breathe and feed my soul. As a result of being in that desert—spiritually, metaphorically and literally—I confronted the reality of what I wanted. I thought, ‘You know, maybe superstardom on the level of Michael Jackson isn’t what I want.’ I mean, that’s what I’d always thought I’d wanted, but I realized I’d been working toward something I didn’t really care about. It was an odd moment—realizing that fame and fortune were not the goals. In L.A.,” he concludes, “I really made a transition as an artist.” A major part of Porter’s reevaluation came with the realization that he wanted to write songs, including Superstar’s opening number, “I’m a Black Broadway Bitch from the Ghetto.” Porter proudly reports that approximately 80 percent of the dozen songs in his show at Joe’s Pub—where he will be accompanied by a four-piece band and two back-up singers—will be his own compositions. And, while highlights from his Broadway career “are sprinkled in the show,” Porter says, “I’m not 80 years old. I’m not Elaine Stritch, so I can’t really be talking about this amazing career.” Still, the theatre, Porter says, “has been sacred to me from the moment I discovered it—from when I was a kid and was introduced to Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls via the Tony Awards. It was the moment,” Porter confesses, “that I realized, ‘Oh, right . . . I can do this.’”

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