Thursday, August 5, 2010

ANGELS IN AMERICA Thoughts -- Actor Billy Porter

We continue our series of posts featuring people's thoughts on the power and impact of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Click here and continue checking back for more words from Broadway cast members, our current cast and creative team, Signature’s past Playwrights-in-Residence, and others in the theatre community. We also want to hear from YOU -- click here to find out how you can contribute.


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I sit down to dinner with my family, as I always do just in time for the six o’clock news. I’m twelve years old and usually completely uninterested in anything the newscaster has to say. This day is different. This day feels complicated. Insistent. Serene. Terrifying.

The sun is setting after a long day of summer rain hashing it out with the Ms. Humidity. The result; a gray high sky filled with clouds that resemble patches of cotton candy with mauve shafts of light seeping through to earth below.

“There’s a new deadly disease that seems to be afflicting homosexual men mainly in New York City and San Francisco,” the newscaster reported. “No one knows what’s causing the outbreak or why the syndrome seems to be targeting homosexual men…” Homosexual? I had never heard the term before, but some how I knew exactly what it meant and that I was going to…

Oh, God! What have I…? Cold sweat.

I excused myself from the table and retreated to my closet.

Literal. Metaphoric.

For you see, my bedroom closet was the place of solace for me.

My closet was a sanctuary where I could try on my Aunt Sharon’s high-heels without being judged. Or experiment with the neighborhood boys curious about the touch. Or refine my solo for Sunday morning service.

My Closet. My Secret. My Shame.

And now my hiding place was in jeopardy of being exposed. Obliterated. I was a homosexual and I was going to die!

I continued for the next decade living in faggot-limbo. Never being “butch” enough to actually “hide” in any structured “closet,” in plain sight, and way too afraid and confused to stand inside my own terrifying yet glaringly transparent truth.

And then I wandered into a preview performance of Angels In America: Millennium Approaches at The Walter Kerr theatre in 1993. From the moment the curtain rose, I was in utter shock. Disbelief. Speechless. Breathless. FINALLY, someone had distilled into three-and-a-half hours of exquisite art what I had been trying to express all my life.

When you pray, what do you pray for?

I pray for God to crush me, break me up into little pieces and start all over again.

Oh. Please. Don’t pray for that.

I had a book of Bible stories when I was a kid. There was a picture I’d look at twenty times every day: Jacob wrestles with the angel. I don’t really remember the story, or why the wrestling – just the picture. Jacob is young and very strong. The angel is… a beautiful man, with golden hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights. I’m… It’s me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It’s not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart torn out from God’s. But you can’t not lose.

As the tears gushed from my eyes like an illegally unplugged fire hydrant, I felt the weight of a thousand Sunday’s lifting off my shoulders. This piece gave me language, encompassed my pain and spoke my truth to the world when I could not. I’m a better artist, a better HUMAN BEING. I’m proud to be Black, Gay and Christian in America. I’m braver than I ever thought I could be. Thank you Mr. Kushner – you saved my life!

Billy Porter plays Belize in Signature Theatre Company's production of Angels in America

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