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Veteran Actor Opens Up on Tony Award-Winning Role

Billy Porter

During his acceptance speech at this year’s Tony Awards, Best Actor in a Musical winner Billy Porter shared a poignant story about how seeing the cast of Dreamgirls appear on the 1982 Tonys telecast changed the course of his life. This anecdote isn’t unfamiliar to the legions of fans who’ve followed his professional trajectory over the better part of the past two decades. He shares the fond memory, and will even belt out verses of Jennifer Holiday’s iconic ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” at the drop of a hat.

Like Dreamgirls, Porter is considered Broadway pedigree. But for many outside the theater realm, his name isn’t known. That’s been changing since last month, when the Kinky Boots star made history as one of five African-Americans who’ve garnered Tony Awards.

“It was a wonderful, historic year, and I felt blessed and honored to be a part of it,” Porter says about that fateful night. Unlike the Oscars and the Emmys, which honor film and television, the Tonys have historically been more generous when it comes to celebrating performers of color. Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Diana Ross have all scored the coveted award.

For Porter, who portrays drag queen (or “gender illusionist,” as he likes to refer to her) Lola, the road to the prestigious awards ceremony has been long and sometimes arduous. The Pittsburgh native first showed up on Broadway in 1991 with a role in Miss Saigon.  Glitzy jukebox musicals like Grease, Five Guys Named Moe and Smokey Joe’s Café followed on his résumé. And then there was nothing.

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