A vivid jolt of life force was unleashed on me, and like a cartoon character, I went soaring into the sky and was abruptly stopped by a honey-soaked voice; I hung suspended inside the Al Hirschfeld Theater.
That was my introduction to Lola, the drag queen with a devastating right hook and a need for a pair of exceptional heels that can support her statuesque figure and supersonic energy.
You can’t knock the impact of a first impression, and I’m confident that’s at the core of the 13 Tony Award nominations that “Kinky Boots” received this year. “Kinky Boots” musically follows the lives of two people, Lola and Charlie, who struggle to realize their dreams and fight to keep them alive despite circumstances that threaten to stop them.
Billy Porter (Lola) is nominated for a Tony and so is the terrific actor Stark Sands, who plays opposite Porter as Charlie, an affable dreamer who is stuck with a dying shoe factory and a laundry list of family issues, starting with the problem of how he can keep his father’s dream afloat. However, his fathers’ dream is not his–and therein lies the drama and connective thread that binds the two unlikeliest of allies.
Under the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical category are Bertie Carvel, “Matilda”; Santino Fontana, “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella”; Rob McClure, “Chaplin”; Porter, “Kinky Boots”; and Sands, “Kinky Boots.”
With its book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, “Kinky Books” is predicted to go home with a few awards. Who, if either Porter or Sands, will place the Tony on his mantel is the big, pink elephant in the room.
The most interesting dilemma is having two leads nominated under the same category. It’s a solid and consistent win for the audience, but you have to ponder–which of these two thoroughbreds wants it more: Porter or Sands?
This is part one of my Q-and-A with Porter. Much like Lola, he has strong opinions, and I was all ears.
AmNews: Billy, where did you find such a glorious soul like Ms. Lola? How does a character like that come roaring to life?
Billy Porter: She is in me, so, I began with myself. Understand, I’ve lived a life as an African-American, gay, out, Christian man for my entire life. I know what it feels like to be on the outside, to be an outsider. This is authentic; I know what it feels like to be denigrated. I know what it feels like to have people and laws that say that my life and what I represent are invalid. So, you know, I started there and kept building out.
Gay and Christian? B, hold that thought. I will be looping back. So Lola is a positive role model, I think. A bit more about the showstopper–I mean, she did get you a Tony nomination.
Indeed. Over the years, I’ve spent a good chunk of time in gay bars and I’ve seen many drag queens. So I started keeping a mental “just-in-case” file because I wanted to create a fierce realness–real femininity–so that’s where I started.
Clearly people love the music. Cyndi Lauper is every slice of wonderful, but the meat of the story is compelling too. Harvey can write, and it’s based on a real father and son. Is there anything that hits home for you?
Big question, layered answer. Love and forgiveness are part of it. In the first act, the ballad “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” where Stark’s character and my character realize they have the same emotional wounds–that is a moment I feel. I have two fathers, my stepfather and my biological father. Both relationships were strained. They have both passed, so there are moments every night that I live in. In that private space, I try to honor them and especially honor the effect that they’ve had on my life. Life lessons well-learned, they taught me how to be human in teaching me how to love myself and teaching me about forgiveness.
Forgivenesses is a big part of “Kinky,” which is a theme so necessary and consistent in the gay world, isn’t it?
Acceptance is the first step for every positive transformation. I explained to my mother, who has cerebral palsy, that me being gay was not my choice. I didn’t ask for it any more than she asked for her physical challenge. Once she embraced that and it became a part of her subconscious, our relationship changed, and we grew and continue to grow strong.
Let us turn the page to the nomination. I’m going to be one of folks cheering the loudest on Tony night [Sunday, June 9]. So how do you keep up the pace with the show and the whirlwind that is the award season? I’m tired just asking you the questions.
Life is energy. I am blessed. We artists dream for roles and characters that will come along that support you creatively, emotionally, financially–all of those things–so I’m far from tired. Eight shows a week is tiring, but I’m a happy, happy man.
B, the Tony nomination, is it a big deal or a small deal to you? You seem mighty chilled. I’d be shouting it to strangers on the street.
[Laughter] Theater saved my life. It saved my life! There is no way around that. When I saw Jennifer Holliday on the stage, that was the moment.That was the transition, and I understood where I belonged. Growing up in a Pentecostal community was challenging. If that community sensed that you were different, that you had something special about you, they would push you toward a life as a minister. My ministry was someplace else. It was here, there, on the stage–any stage. No matter where my career veers, I will always return to my home, to my roots. I will always return to the thing that saved me. I will always return to the stage.
I’m not a betting woman, because I hate to lose. However, I’m down on one knee, the dice jiggling in my itching, right palm, and I’m calling it: “Let it all ride on Porter. Hell yes, all of it! Mama needs a new pair of kinky boots.”
The American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards salute excellence in Broadway theatre. Presented by the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, the awards air on Sunday, June 9 on CBS. For more information, visit www.tonyawards.com.