After a Tony-winning run starring in Kinky Boots, Billy Porter is stepping out of the spotlight and into the director’s chair, helming the much-anticipated revival of George C. Wolfe’s 1987 comedy The Colored Museum for the Huntington Theatre Company. We spoke with the powerhouse entertainer about the show, which runs through April 5.
It’s a little bit different because I’m in control of everything. And being a Virgo and being a control freak, it’s fun to exercise that control freak muscle. It’s something completely honest [laughs]. But, you know, it’s two different things, even though it’s in the same world—two very different muscles.
No, I’m a better actor because I know what it means to direct a story, and I’m a better director because I know how to act, so I know how to talk to people and how to get my actors to do what I need them to do, and know what they’re going through emotionally, spiritually and physically. So when I ask them to do things, I know specifically what they go through to get to what it is I’m trying to have them do. So it just makes me better.
I discovered this play when it was first written. I was in high school and my drama teacher gave it to me when I was looking for audition monologues for college. There’s a black gay character in the piece and it was really the first time I’d ever experienced seeing someone who looked like me who wasn’t a tragic figure, or the butt of the joke, or an abomination, or whatever it was. So it was really transformative for me because it gave me a hope that who I was was OK. And it also started the relationship that I had with George C. Wolfe, which I had on my own. It was completely one-sided, for about 20 years [laughs]. But I actually finally got a chance to work with him, and that also has been the kind of transformative experience that words don’t really describe properly. And it’s so humbling that he and Peter [DuBois] think that I’m the one to be able to bring this back. It’s such an honor, and a gift.
I’m still falling in love with all of it. I have to be in love with all of it, as a director, because…they’re all my babies. Every vignette has to be treated with the same kind of care and attention and value, in order to make the whole piece work.
What kind of research did you do to prepare? That’s so funny, the dramaturge emailed me a couple weeks before and was asking… And it’s like, you know, the dramaturgy for this particular play has been the 45 years that I’ve lived on the planet. I don’t need to do any research on black America. I’m black and I’m in America, so I get it. But, for real, that is the research that I’ve done, is that I’ve lived as a black man in America—that’s all the research I’ve needed to do [laughs].
The play was incredibly important at its time, but many of the issues are just as relevant today… Of course. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We were just talking with the cast yesterday about just how profound the ideas and the themes in this piece are, and how it still resonates. We have come a long way, and I feel very blessed to be living in this time where the possibility of change and the right kind of equality is right at our fingertips, but simultaneously that’s when the resistance is the worst. So, the fight is not over, and I think that’s what this play is about. It’s about reminding people that we can’t be complacent. It’s about reminding people that the unification of the struggle is in the embracing of it, and the celebration of it. Everybody doesn’t have civil rights yet, so we’ve got to keep fighting. I mean, the fact that there’s any conversation surrounding whether a human being gets to function is just beyond me. I don’t understand the conversation. I understand the conversation of us being different. And I even understand the conversation of a person not understanding or liking my choices—I get that too. But to then take that step that requires legislation to discriminate against me is where there’s a separation, for me.
I talk about this with friends a lot—it’s mind-boggling to me that we’re still having this conversation. Yeah, whether I deserve to exist. It’s so baffling to me. I think this show really sort of holds a mirror up to those ideas and sort of indicts those types of believers. And also, you know, lights the fire under those of us who still need to continue to fight.
I do think it’s easy to become complacent, unfortunately. Yeah! Like, oh, we have a black president, so there’s no racism anymore! Oh, OK [laughs].