How Donald Trump Helped Billy Porter Slip Back Into His “Kinky Boots”

"Hearts and minds can be changed by the arts—that’s why they’re under attack."

It’s been a busy four years for Billy Porter. Since wrapping his Tony-winning run as the original Lola in Kinky Boots, he’s starred in the autobiographical play While I Yet Live, helped launch a new line of eyewear, and returned to Broadway in Shuffle Along.

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There have also been personal triumphs—including his wedding to husband Adam Smith in January.

Like the rest of us, Porter has watched the nation unravel politically: The 2016 campaign was very much on his mind when he released Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers in April.

And, he tells, NewNowNext, it informed his decision to return as Boots’ indomitable drag queen for a 15-week engagement beginning September 26.

Great news that you’re coming back to Broadway. Why was this the right time to return to Kinky Boots?

The election did a number on me. It did on all us, I think. I feel like we’re in a place where we have to speak truth to power, and the only way I know how to resist is creatively and artistically. Hearts and minds can be changed by the arts, and that’s why they’re under attack.

Kinky Boots is set in England, but many of the characters are factory workers facing economic uncertainty. So there are obvious parallels with Trump voters.

That’s the whole point: You can be changed. I know people who supported Trump, and now I ask them, “Do you still think this is good?” Because if you see the facts and you still think your decisions were good, then we’re done. This is not a partisan matter; it’s about basic decency and humanity. Some of my white friends say, “Oh, the veil has been lifted” about racism. That veil has always been lifted, but now they’re coming after you too.

You’ve noted that Lola isn’t transgender, but the threats posed now to LGBT rights would surely affect her.

An attack on one of us is an attack on us all. The good news is that everybody’s engaged again. I’m talking both sides. Whatever your issues with Hillary were, this was not the election to vote for a third party candidate, or not vote at all. But I read a story that Bill Clinton told her campaign they weren’t going to the right states, and they ignored him.

I didn’t know people weren’t going to those states! I spent a lot of time in places like Indiana and Florida playing dates this year, to promote my album, and I would say in concert, “It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, what’s going on in this country is bullshit.” Every time that got applause. And people came up to me afterwards, weeping, saying, “Thank you for coming to talk to us.”

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In On The Soul Of Richard Rodgers, you mine the social consciousness of his songs, especially the ones he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II.

There were things on it that were semi-political that I took even more in that direction. “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair” (performed with Todrick Hall) was going to be a sassy duet with a girl, but it became a direct comment on this administration. “(You’ve Got To Be) Carefully Taught” was not on the album originally.

And “Edelweiss”–people forget that they sang that [in The Sound of Music] when the Nazis were coming to occupy Austria. That’s why we released it on Inauguration Day.

You worked with some really soulful singers on the album—from Leslie Odom Jr. and Cynthia Erivo to Ledisi and India.Arie.

It’s my step towards being the Quincy Jones of Broadway. Leslie Odom was my student, Patina Miller was my student. This whole explosion of contemporary voices [on Broadway] is something that started 25 years ago. We were all trying to make our voices heard, to have the purists come around and understand.
 

Boots aside, what else is on your plate?

I’m writing two musicals right now. One is a gospel musical with Kurt Carr; the other one I can’t talk about yet, except to say it’s taken a very political turn.

For me it’s all about using the freelance skills I’ve been honing for the past 30 years, making a schedule and adhering to it.

How about self-care?

I’ve had a lot of working vacations. My husband and I were in Fire Island for a week, and I did a show that Saturday.

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That’s the way it is with me. We don’t always get to choose when or how the work shows up, but when it does, we do it.

Billy Porter returns to Kinky Boots from September 26 to January 7, 2018.

Elysa Gardner is a former music and theater critic for USA Today, and has also contributed to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and VH1. She also chaired the jury for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
@elysagardner