I am haunted by Billy Porter. In the blue glow of Ellsworth Avenue bars, I see the Broadway star’s regal frame. He’ll squint at me, through studious black frames, over his kingly cheekbones, and then dimple-break into a bright white smile. Star struck, I have only twice managed a blushing, “Aren’t you Billy Porter?” before my ghost stranger politely shakes his head and disappears into the darkness, a handsome crop of dreadlocks behind him. A friend once witnessed this and teased me, saying my phantom was a sorry look-alike, another dashingly dignified African American man, but certainly not the immortal Porter.
I interviewed the idol for a story in 2006, when he was still soaring from the fame of being in the original ensemble of Miss Saigon, the release of two albums, and his regular installment on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. I managed to keep my wits and professionalism about me (I think) for our second phoner, recently, when Porter talked about coming back to Pittsburgh to perform at the Center for Theater Arts’ Top Hats and Pearls gala on April 2.
“It’s like coming full circle for me,” Porter says. “The Center was one of the places where I got … help.” He laughs. “I had various angels in my life, and those guys let me take classes for free. Also, [Executive Director] Billy Hartung and I are the same age, and we were in those classes together. His parents would put us in their truck at the end of the class and drive us all the way to East Liberty, where I lived. I really don’t know where I would be without those people, who cared enough about me to make all of that happen, to make all of the art, in me, work.”
Porter says that he’ll only be in town for a few days, as his Off-Broadway production of Angels in America, in which he plays Belize, has been extended for the fourth time. Does he plan to visit any of his old haunts (I nearly choke on the word) while he’s in Pittsburgh? “I really don’t go out a lot,” he says. “When I do, I stick to Ellsworth, mostly. Will I see you out?”
I smile. “I’m certain I’ll see you.”
For tickets, contact the Center for Theater Arts, 250 Mt. Lebanon Blvd., Mt. Lebanon, 412.563.5080. centerfortheaterarts.com.