‘It’s his time’ _ ‘Kinky Boots’ star and Pittsburgh native Porter on track for Tony Award

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This May 31, 2013 photo shows Tony Award nominee Billy Porter tweaking his new haircut at the men’s spa BBraxton in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. Porter hopes to win his first Tony as best actor in a musical for his role as a drag queen in “Kinky Boots.” (AP Photo/Mark Kennedy) 

 

EXIT STAGE LEFT

Porter left the stage — for 13 years. He went to graduate school at UCLA’s screenwriting program and moved to Los Angeles for several years, becoming the artistic director of the Upright Cabaret.

He re-imagined “The Wiz” at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh and conceived the Las Vegas musical revue “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Music of Stevie Wonder” in 2002. He played Little Richard in the CBS miniseries “Shake, Rattle & Roll.” He was testing his own skills.

“It challenged me to understand my creativity in a different way,” he says. “I had to embrace that side of myself before I could require anybody else to see me differently.”

What brought him back to the New York stage permanently was a play that had changed his life years ago. When he was in “Grease,” Porter managed to get to the adjacent theater to see “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s riotous, almost operatic masterpiece. Porter adored the role of Belize, a left-leaning gay Black nurse and former drag queen.

“There was finally a representation of me onstage — a Black, gay, Christian, out man,” he says. “I had never seen that portrayed onstage before.”

Some 18 years later, he won the part of Belize when the Signature Theatre Company revived the seven-hour epic in 2010. “I got an opportunity to actually play my dream role,” he says.

WE’RE ATHLETES’

These days, you can find Porter, 43, playing Lola, the soul of “Kinky Boots,” the Cyndi Lauper musical about a British shoe factory that retrofits itself into a maker of footwear for drag queens.

Fun and glitzy, the show is at heart about opening your mind. It features two men from different worlds who learn to trust each other, forgive their fathers’ wrongs and change the world.

“This role encompasses all that I asked the universe for,” Porter says. “I asked for a role that meant something to me, that fed my soul. A character in a show that had an impact, some sort of social impact. And I get to do my own British accent. And fierce clothes.”

To win the Tony, Porter has to beat Bertie Carvel of “Matilda the Musical,” Santino Fontana from “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” Rob McClure from “Chaplin” and his own co-star Stark Sands. (“He is truly my rock. We’re a team. If either one of us win, we both win,” Porter says.)

All Tony nominees have earned the honor, but Porter seems to have especially done so: He dances in 6-inch heels and changes in and out of wigs and dresses all night. He goes to physical therapy twice a week and gets a massage every seven days. He relies on ice and bath salts to reduce swelling.

“You have to be completely aware of your body,” he says. “I try to stay ahead of whatever is creeping up. We’re doing things to our body that is unnatural. We’re athletes. If you think of a baseball player or a football player, none of them play eight days a week.”

His haircut finished and his sideburns nearly sculpted, Porter’s smock is removed and he takes a look in the mirror. The new trim complements his geek chic outfit — bow tie, knee-length shorts, patterned socks and glasses.

“Good,” he pronounces as his hands dig into his hair, gently messaging his scalp as if aerating soil. “You’ve got to work with it. That’s why I wanted to get it a week before.”

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