Special to the AmNews
I recently had the pleasure of attending the opening night performance of “While I Yet Live,” playing at the Duke on West 42nd Street. It is a riveting drama about Tony Award-winning performer Billy Porter and his life growing up as a gay, Black, Christian male. Porter puts his heart out on the stage as the cast tells stories of what he endured when he broke the news to his very religious, handicapped mother.
Porter’s journey was a very difficult one, but in the end, he manages to find himself. The production stars Larry Powell as Calvin, Porter’s character; S. Epatha Merkerson as Maxine, his mother; Lillias White as Gertrude, the grandmother; Sheria Irving as Tonya, the younger sister; Elain Graham as Delores, his aunt; Sharon Washington as Eva, Maxine’s best friend; and Kevyn Morrow as Vernon, Maxine’s husband and Calvin’s stepfather. After experiencing this show, I attended the party and got to speak with Porter, his family and members of the cast about this moving story.
Actress Eboni Jo-Ann was happy to share, “I was totally blown away by the content of the piece and the fact that it was written by a friend of mine, Billy Porter. To see Elain Graham, Lillias White and Epatha Merkerson on the same stage—wow! Epatha’s performance was riveting. She commands the second act.
“This is a story that needs to be told, and it was told so well. I’ve been letting people know that they must see this piece. I have so many friends that have been injured by this same circumstance, and they need to see this piece to begin healing. I loved it.”
“It’s really surreal. I’ve never done this before,” Porter stated about writing his first play. “It’s fascinating to feel I finally have a voice. This is really what I wanted to say.”
Porter’s mother, Cloerinda Porter-Ford, shared, “The play is wonderful. Watching the tragedy in the play helped me to be a stronger person. You have to always grow.” Regarding her son being gay, she said, “God had me carry him for nine months for a reason. I realized I couldn’t turn my back on him.”
Porter’s sister, Marymartha Ford, is depicted as being a person who truly cared for their handicapped mother after Calvin left home at a young age to find himself. In fact, she dedicated her life for some time to seeing to their mother’s every need. She recalled, “Seeing the play has challenging moments for me. But remembering some of the things, there were tears that flowed, but it was because we’re not here anymore, we’re on the other side. Billy started writing this play eight years ago, and there was a healing process going on. My mother recorded hours on cassette tapes of her story and family stories. Then my mom and I were reading all the different versions. We were part of the process. I’m very happy for Billy.”
Discussing her grandmother character, Gertrude, White said that the character has done things in her past. “She definitely has secrets, but don’t we all?” Considering her fellow cast members, White said, “I love the fact that I’m working with these polished, professional actresses. We all share a dressing room, and there’s a lot of love and respect.”
Merkerson, in playing Maxine, the handicapped mother, has to shake her hands to demonstrate the illness that the mother character has. She plays the character with passion and love. She recalled, “Billy asked me 10 years ago, he said, ‘I’m thinking about writing a play about my mother and I want you to play my mother.’”
To get the physicality of her character down, Merkerson said that she watched videos of young people with cerebral palsy. Discussing Porter, Merkerson explained, “I think Billy is a brave soul because he tells a brutally honest story. This play is a testament to what they both went through. We all have moments we question in our lives, and we have to figure out what to do to move on.”
“While I Yet Live” is a poignant theatrical experience. When you combine the phenomenal cast with Porter’s powerful words and the exceptional direction of Sheryl Kaller, you will be nothing less than touched.
If you want to experience the show, you must act now. It has a very limited run.