I recently met a most witty man with an ebony tongue on a journey to Cuba. Along with a few thousand others who have a Tony and Grammy sitting on a counter, this Billy was way more than some gilded statuette. While I might not be the best star chaser, I am a pretty keen observer of character. Billy is one and has a strong one.
We were a bunch of strangers on an art, architecture and ecotourism mission to Cuba and Billy Porter came along saying he was tipping his toe into uncharted waters by taking a vacation, something a bit foreign to his working class Pittsburgh family.
I’m not sure if half of the people on this tour had even heard of the Broadway hit, Kinky Boots, where Billy has had a phenom run of ovations and sterling reviews. So Billy slipped into the trip rather incognito to experience rather than be experienced. Going to Cuba was a good choice for Billy, as for one with a sense of wonder it is a rather life changing exercise and even the most jaded can’t help but be touched by the scenes, scents and colorful array of personalities.
Upon arrival Billy exclaimed, “look at all these brown people, they are everywhere!” Every shade of brown, in fact seemed to have a story behind their hazel eyes. It is inescapable to not discuss culture, class and politics in a place like this with every prop and person encountered seeming somewhat exotic – but within the framework of a social experiment gone awry. There may be some awkward giddiness about who ultimately won and who didn’t since the Bay of Pigs, but the social environment allowed for deeper questions to penetrate our interior dialogue during the week.
Billy is a thoughtful, if hilarious travel companion. He wears cool New York attire and, of course, oversized black or horn rimmed glasses, hardly the stuff made for Black Gentiles. But from behind the specs, were intense looks. To my delight, Billy actually listened before he spoke. He enjoyed being a provocateur; of course you might expect that from a man playing the Black Drag Queen role on the Great White Way.
But here is the point, our celebrity in tow has things on his mind that obviously needed exorcised or contemplated. When we spoke about kids today being challenged by values of other generations, Billy had a grandma story. “I stole something and didn’t tell my mama the truth,” Billy’s finger rising to command attention for the punch line coming. “Billy,” my grandma said, “ There is nothing worse than a liar and a cheat and you are both.” Lesson absorbed. Billy said those arbiters of value are all but gone and the heavy load can’t be laid on the kids.
Billy seemed to represent the last generation where the American dream was accessible. So he wondered about the browns around him and what life would bring. The Cuban kids were beautiful, attired in pressed uniforms and carrying one writing implement and nothing of excess. These kids might be more like Billy than the ones we have created with American wealth. Just saying.
When we returned to Miami, Billy had a concert scheduled in Miami Beach, so some of us opted in to see our funny man on stage. His repertoire was a very careful, graceful selection of songs about the heart, about working hard to let the light shine even in the face of so many fears that keep us hidden from our true self. He talked about what he saw on the streets of Cuba, a city in ruins, and wondered why peace had not been worth the price, given what our conflict and violence has wrought. “We are violent,” Billy yelled into the Mic. “Why?” “That is not acceptable!” His view of humanity seemed to be that each of us has the voice of a grandma and ourselves to hear and that there is no excuse to opt out of personal victories. His song about asking for peace in the world without having peace at home, inside, hit the mark. He crooned on till the end of the show, leaving us with an encore performance about peace within. Then he reminded us of something that must represent his life’s journey, “there are no time limits to our dreams.”
Billy is a special talent and I will remember him as that shining example of the great stories we can realize if we only open our closed hearts to ourselves and those who are around us to deliver peace.