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Interview With Billy Porter: Humbled and Energized to Receive 2024 Humanitarian Award at Tonys

‘The only thing I’ve ever known is to show up for equality and justice.’

By SHARON EBERSON

Billy Porter will step onto the stage at Lincoln Center on Sunday, already knowing he is a Tony Award winner. 

The Pittsburgh native and supreme fashionista has his outfit picked out – head-to-toe Robert Wun, but otherwise under wraps – and 90 seconds to say what’s in his heart when he receives the 2024 Isabelle Stevenson Humanitarian Award. The Tony is “presented annually to a member of the theater community who has made a substantial contribution of volunteered time and effort on behalf of one or more humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations.”

That will make Tony No. 3 for Porter. Already a history-making Emmy Award winner for the FX series Pose and a Tony-winning Best Actor in a Musical for Kinky Boots, which also earned him a Grammy, Porter earned a second Tony in 2022, as producer of A Strange Loop.

Billy Porter at the ceremony on December 1, 2022, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Among his inspiring messages, expressed in many ways during the ceremony: “We are all enough just as we are.”

His reaction to being named the recipient of the Tonys’ Humanitarian Award was to look back 35 years, and take stock.

“I have always been present,” he said by phone Friday afternoon, in the midst of housecleaning as he settles into a new home. “I’m first-generation, post-Sixties Civil Rights Movement, and I came out when I was 16, and then we went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives during the AIDS crisis. So the only thing I’ve ever known is to show up and show out for equality and justice.”

The Tonys comes at a very busy time for Porter, who is a man in demand during Pride Month.

Previously the grand marshal of Pittsburgh’s Pride Parade, Porter this year held the title on June 2 in Dallas and shared the honor with Keke Palmer at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Pride Parade, where he was a featured performer at the Capital Pride Concert. He’s due to perform grand marshal duties for the San Francisco Pride: Beacon of Love event on June 30.

The call to arms in a world “that is moving backward” on those rights, for which Porter has fought so hard, for so long, had him recalling his first pride parade. 

It was a late Eighties summer day, and he was performing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Montclair, N.J. He had been invited by to join the New York Pride Parade, and the march down Fifth Avenue was already under way when he arrived – he got a little lost on the way, in pre-GPS days.

“A friend saw me, snatched me into the line and threw a shirt over my head that said, ‘Silence Equals Death.’ And we proceeded to march down Fifth Avenue, chanting, ‘Act Up, Fight Back, Fight AIDS,’ and I was in the middle of Act Up, and I never looked back,” Porter recounted.

He has often said, and repeated in this conversation, that he became an advocate and activist because there was no choice. “My friends were dropping dead.”

He remains a member of the Board of Trustees for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and was a founding member and a force in Black Theatre United

Billy Porter at his 2023 Heinz Hall concert, with his iconic Christian Siriano tuxedo dress projected as a backdrop. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

“Billy Porter has made extraordinary contributions as an activist for the LGBTQ+ community, and we are truly honored to present him with this year’s Isabelle Stevenson Award,” said a statement from Jason Laks, interim president of The Broadway League and Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing. “He has lent tremendous time, effort and support to a variety of organizations including The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, the Entertainment Community Fund, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, all while becoming an unstoppable force on stage, screen and beyond.”

“Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS and the Actors Fund taught an entire generation of theater artists how to activate. I was a part of that,” he said.

Porter attended Pittsburgh CAPA and then Carnegie Mellon University on his way to Broadway and the recording industry – all detailed  in his autobiography, Unprotected. He struck Broadway gold with Kinky Boots in 2013, and again with Pose, starting in 2018, raising his profile and magnifying his voice. His mastery of the red carpet hasn’t hurt either – his recent cover story in Fashion magazine is to die for.

Leslie Odom Jr., ‘Stereophonic’ Actors and More Among CMU 2024 Tony Nominees

As an activist, Porter received The Elizabeth Taylor Commitment to End AIDS Award in 2021, and he has been honored by GLAAD and the Harvey Milk Foundation, among others, as he continues to be a loud voice in support of his community.

“I really always thought of myself as a person who shows up when the leaders tell me where to go. And now it’s my turn to be one of the leaders,” he said. ”I’ve been understanding that for a little while now, and [the Isabelle Stevenson Award] is another sign that now when I speak, people listen.”

BILLY PORTER IS BLACK MONA LISA

At 54, Porter is busier than ever as “a multi-multi-hypenate,” as he puts it, making movies, creating new theater projects and concentrating on his music. He rocked Heinz Hall last year as part of his Black Mona Lisa concert tour and on the day we spoke, his single, Leap, had just been released. In the fall, he will put on his alter ego – as Black Mona Lisa – embark on a UK tour with his music, which is top of his mind at the moment.

His tour promotions say “Billy Porter as Black Mona Lisa,” which he compared to Beyonce as Sasha Fierce, Donald Glover as Childish Gambino and Stefani Germanotta, known better as Lady Gaga.

He hopes his alter ego will remind listeners that singing is “the gift from On High that gave me the courage to branch out into all of these other aspects of creativity.”

“It was 25 years ago,” Porter continued, “that the gatekeepers of the acting industry kept me out because they said I was a singer. So now I’ve broken that stereotype, and now it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know [Pose’s] Pray Tale could sing. It feels like a constant uphill climb.”

While music is foremost in his plans, he is busy working on the previously announced biopic of the late novelist and activist James Baldwin.

“He was a pioneer. He was a trailblazer. He was a truth teller. If there’s anyone that I look up to, if there’s anyone outside of my mother who I would call a hero, it’s him,” Porter said. “He was out and Black and queer and an activist and all of those things at a time when that was even worse than today. And so he gives me the energy, he gives me the courage, the focus, the necessity … Who I am is necessary, and I stand on his shoulders and I look forward to being able to portray him.”

Broadway also is in his future, Porter promised. But there’s nothing he can say about that for now.

HUMBLING AND ENERGIZING

Porter abides by what he says is novelist Toni Morrison’s call for action: When the going gets toughest, that is precisely the time when artists go to work. 

“While there is frustration in me right now in terms of what’s going on in this country and around the world, and the trend towards going backwards, it is my responsibility to keep standing up and moving equality forward,” he said. 

In that regard, he finds being the recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Award also to be both “humbling and energizing.”

On Friday, he was still uncertain about most things happening at the 2024 Tony Awards, aside from what he will wear and that his name will be called. He was unsure about the show’s order, who the presenter will be or if his speech will be televised. 

There was but a single guest ticket for the Tony Awards, as it is being held for the first time this year in the relatively small David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. By Porter’s side for the Tony Awards, as always, will be his sister, MaryMartha Ford.

“I don’t have any expectations,” he said of the night ahead. “I’ve never been in this position before … so I’m just going to enjoy myself and to enjoy my colleagues and friends in the theater, and have a great night out.”

TONYS TELECASTS

The Tonys will take place at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. Julianne Hough and Utkarsh Ambudkar (CBS’s Ghosts) will host The Tony Awards: Act One, a live preshow available for free on Pluto TV from 6:30-8 p.m. Starting at 8 p.m., CBS and Paramount+ will air the main event, hosted by Ariana DeBose.