Billy Porter’s one-man show traces his life, onstage and off
Billy Porter has always been a good talker.
In interviews he’s articulate, lively, direct and highly opinionated.
That’s unlikely to change any time soon now that he’s found his own voice onstage.
His one-man show “Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am)” began performances Thursday at City Theatre on the South Side. It’s an autobiographical journey wherein spoken passages are laced through with music — approximately 20 songs, almost half of them created by Porter — that takes him from his beginnings in Homewood and East Liberty through the highs and lows of his personal life and his performing career on and off-Broadway to the man he has become. He’s accompanied onstage by musicians and two back-up singers.
Despite its song and dance adornments and its New York debut in Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, it is not, Porter says, a cabaret show.
“It just happened to be in a space that is a cabaret on occasion,” he says. “This is a play, a one-person play about my life. … It’s about disenfranchised groups of people who no longer accept being silenced and ignored. That’s what I, as a gay black man, have had to endure my whole life.”
“Ghetto Superstar” earned generally positive reviews from theater critics. Associated Press drama critic Michael Kuchwara called it “dynamite entertainment.” Many, like New Jersey Star-Ledger theater critic Michael Sommers, admired Porter’s “exuberant personality and rich, expressive voice powered by a strong gospel-style fervor.” Jeremy McCarter, writing for The New York Sun, called it “a love story, subgenre: showbiz.”
But reviews don’t impress Porter.
He avoided reading anything written about the New York performances until after his show closed. By then, the only review still available online was that of Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. Isherwood acknowledged Porter’s singing talent, but he was less enthusiastic about the show’s narrative arc and what he called “moony prescriptions for spiritual healing.” Porter, with his customary outspokenness, had objections.
“The New York Times (review) was good, but he (Isherwood) didn’t get it,” Porter says. “He just didn’t want to go there with me. He got the surface stuff, but he didn’t get the point beyond the talent. There’s a journey and a story worth hearing.”
Drawing on his own life and experiences that began with growing up in Homewood and East Liberty, Porter sang and even did a bit of preaching at Friendship Baptist Church. He attended Reizenstein Middle School and Allderdice High School before graduation from the Pittsburgh High School of the Creative and Performing Arts in 1987 as part of the first class to go all the way through the program there.
He had become irrevocably oriented toward a career in show business after seeing Jennifer Holliday perform a number from “Dreamgirls” during the television broadcast of the 1982 Tony Awards show.
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, he moved to New York City, where he made his Broadway debut in 1992 with “Five Guys Named Moe.”
Since then he has appeared there in productions of “Grease,” “Miss Saigon,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and benefit concerts of “Dreamgirls” and “Hair.”
The last decade of his career has not significantly added to Porter’s claim to superstardom, at least in the traditional sense of the word. He reached the bottom, he says, when he was fired from his job as the voice of Audrey II, the killer plant in the Broadway revival of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
He remembers thinking, “Now I’m getting fired from jobs I don’t even want,” he says.
He briefly considered getting out of performing entirely and called George C. Wolfe, producer of The Public Theater, who was directing “Caroline or Change.” Porter had become friendly with the producer-director when Wolfe directed him in “Radiant Baby” in 2002. Porter thought he might begin a career change by working as Wolfe’s assistant on “Caroline or Change.”
Porter already had been trying to develop a show of his own without much success or progress.
Instead of hiring him as an assistant, Wolfe gave Porter a residency at The Public that allowed him to develop “Ghetto Superstar.”
It was the start of an upswing in Porter’s life.
“Wolfe embraced me as part of his creative family and as a friend when I needed him most,” Porter says. “All of a sudden I had people — who had knowledge and respected me creatively — help me make it into something.”
Soon after, a chance encounter with David Jobin, City Theatre’r former managing director, evolved into an offer to return to Pittsburgh to perform in last season’s production of “Topdog/Underdog.”
While Porter was in “Topdog/Underdog,” a friend from elementary school days, Steven Tabakin, who is an associate producer at The Public, stopped by City Theatre. He mentioned to City’s artistic director, Tracy Brigden, that Porter was working on a one-man show. Brigden investigated, liked what she saw, and put “Ghetto Superstar” into City’s 2005-06 season.
It originally was scheduled to have its world premiere at City Theatre in February, but that honor went to The Public in New York.
Contrary to theatrical cliches, the production and the reviews that followed didn’t make Porter a household name or unleash a flood of attractive offers.
“That doesn’t happen in theater,” Porter says. “But there was a buzz, a groundswell. It was definitely the talk of the town. The buzz was there.”
It also might have allowed people to see him in a new light.
“It’s a reinvention for me in a lot of ways. Prior to this I was perceived as a particular kind of artist, performer, whatever. Because of the show at the Public, I’m transitioning into a different echelon.”
After 10 years in New York, Porter was offered his first non-musical dramatic role there. Beginning May 31, he will perform in the Second Stage production of “Birdie Blue.”
But for now, his attention is on his performances at City Theatre that run through May 1.
While here, he hopes to figure out how the show will play in a theater rather than a cabaret space. “This is not a club where people are eating food and drinking alcoholic beverages,” he says. Plus, there’s more space to work in. “I want to take the show to the next level,” he says.
Although it’s a play about people — including himself — who often feel disenfranchised, silenced or ignored, Porter insists it’s not an angry cry.
“It’s truthful. If that reads as angry, that’s your perception. This is my journey. It’s about truth. Sometimes it stings. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s amazing. It’s up to you to say how that translates to you as an individual. But I don’t try to dictate what experience I think you should have,” he says.
One thing he does promise, though: “I’m not going to shut up.” Additional Information:
‘Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am)’
Presented by : City Theatre Company in association with The Public Theater in New York City
When : In previews. Opens Wednesday with performances through May 1 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Admission : $15 to $40; $15 in advance for students and those 25 and younger
Where : City Theatre, 1313 Bingham St., South Side
Details : (412) 431-2489 or www.CityTheatreCompany.org