Book excerpts: "Unprotected: A Memoir" by Billy Porter

In excerpts tailored from “Unprotected: A Memoir” (Abrams Press), the Emmy-, Tony- and Grammy-winning actor-singer-dancer Billy Porter writes of his creation to musical theater; and attending an open-call audition for “Dreamgirls.”

Learn the excerpts beneath, and do not pass over Seth Doane’s interview with Billy Porter on “CBS Sunday Morning” October 10!



By way of the top of 7th grade, I had thrown myself headlong into appearing in two musicals and familiarized myself with numerous others through checking albums out of the Oakland department of Carnegie Library. “Oklahoma!,” “Hi, Dolly!,” “My Honest Woman,” “West Facet Tale,” “Gypsy,” “Pippin,” “A Refrain Line,” “Chicago,” “The Sound of Tune,” “Rattling Yankees,” “Annie,” “The Tune Guy” … the checklist went on and on. Each and every of them sparked me differently. The lyrics have been uplifting and comedian and artful. They presented an break out from the ethical tension and judgment of the church. They promised a much broader and extra life-affirming global than the only I used to be trapped in.

Nevertheless it used to be unimaginable to not understand that none of them were written with me in thoughts. There used to be nary a Black particular person in any unique solid. “The Wiz” were my first and final revel in of Broadway actors who seemed like me. I would held that night time so as regards to me for goodbye, held directly to it as tightly as I may during the months and years that adopted, however I hadn’t skilled the rest adore it once more.

After which it used to be the second one Sunday in June 1982 (an annual date that during some circles could be known as homosexual Christmas). I used to be by myself within the kitchen, doing the dinner dishes whilst gazing the Tony Awards at the small colour tv we stored at the counter. Tony Randall sat in a velvet high-back armchair and presented a scene from some of the nominees for Perfect Musical, “Dreamgirls.” Then Jennifer Holliday, enjoying Effie, a singer ousted from the crowd for which she used to be the lead, emerged from the again of the degree. And when Holliday sang, I used to be struck into stillness. The again of my neck prickled, and it used to be as though I may really feel the roots of my hair tingling. I cradled myself in a ball at the flooring, surprised, my eyes transfixed at the display screen.

From the primary few moments of her solo, I knew I used to be bearing witness to one thing peculiar. Holliday’s efficiency used to be a excursion de drive of depthless grief and vocal virtuosity. There looked to be nowhere her voice may no longer cross. She used to be a tempest in a tantrum as she growled and howled and keened and bellowed and squalled her approach via her spurned lady’s sizzling blowtorch of a swan music.

I had by no means observed any person give such a lot to a task. Holliday’s Effie held not anything again in any respect. I may rarely believe the fearlessness required to wade so deep into what she knew of agony in entrance of a are living target audience. It used to be directly an act of sheer will and utter give up.

And but there used to be one thing in her efficiency that left me lit with popularity. She sang the way in which we sang in church. She sang within the gospelian taste I used to be raised in. She had taken that high-octane, soul-belting, full-throttle gospel sound to the Broadway degree and taken mainstream audiences to ecstasies with it: I heard within the rapture of her target audience a message expressly for me. I believed, This can also be extra than simply an extracurricular pleasant job in my lifestyles. I will do that musical theater factor too, and I will make a dwelling from it.

I knew that a lot within the second, even though there used to be so a lot more I could not know.

As taken as I used to be with Holliday’s efficiency, I may by no means have imagined how lengthy a foreshadow this music would solid around the subsequent a number of a long time of my lifestyles. I did not but remember the fact that Effie, Holliday’s persona, used to be a singer being fired partly as a result of she did not have compatibility the business’s thought of a dreamgirl: lighthearted and beautiful, skinny, glowing and smiling, perceived through the dominant society as unthreatening, benign.

I wasn’t acquainted with the tale line. Had no perception of what would occur subsequent. From what I would observed spread at the Tony Awards degree, it seemed like the top of the street for Effie: time up, sport over. She were dropped, deserted, left at the aspect of the street. I did not but know that she would languish a long way from the limelight for a few years, or that in the long run, just like the phoenix, she would upward push. And that after she did, she would accomplish that as none instead of her original self in all its glory: uncooked, actual, full-bodied, full-throated, and Blackity Black Black Black. There used to be no solution to know, both, simply how a lot I’d come to spot together with her message, delivered with the righteous ire of one thousand fire-and-brimstone-driven Furies—to the person she loves, sure, but additionally to the soulless, ruthless, dehumanizing business bent on riding her out of the sunshine.


Within the spring of 1986, I noticed in Behind the curtain mag that “Dreamgirls” used to be webhosting open-call auditions in Chicago. Studying that advert used to be like being touched through lightning. I felt the electrical energy in my bone marrow. And from that second on, it used to be as though a fever had taken dangle of me. I needed to be there. I would have the opportunity. I’d in some way get to Chicago and audition, so I may well be in “Dreamgirls” and out of my area endlessly.

The audition used to be on a Friday morning. I do not take into accout why, however through sheer probability, I had that Friday off from faculty. I additionally had spending cash from the numerous jobs I would labored as much as that time. So I advised my mom I used to be spending the evening at a chum’s area.

That Thursday night time, I packed an in a single day bag, took a bus to the Amtrak station downtown, and acquired myself a round-trip teach price tag. Then I rode that teach all evening, for 13 instantly hours, all of the solution to Chicago. I arrived Friday morning with my sheet song, my dance garments, and an deal with. I quickly discovered myself on the most sensible of an enormous prewar skyscraper overlooking Lake Michigan. The ground used to be empty, or so it gave the impression to me. After which I discovered the room. Nobody else used to be there.

I could not imagine it. No person sought after to audition for “Dreamgirls”? Nobody understood the affect of this musical on me … at the global? I sat at the flooring for roughly fifteen mins, and simply as I used to be about to surrender, two males confirmed up, one Black and one White. I’d quickly be told that the White guy used to be Vinnie Liff, founding father of Johnson-Liff casting in NYC. The Black guy used to be Weyman Thompson. He had no longer best performed the nature of Curtis Taylor Jr. within the nationwide excursion of “Dreamgirls,” but additionally used to be what we might name the resident director of the piece. Michael Bennett, the director-choreographer, had passed over the reins to Vinnie and Weyman to maintain the integrity of the paintings as top quality productions have been now being staged in all places the sector.

As quickly because the pianist arrived, I used to be referred to as in for my audition. I belted out “Simply As soon as” through James Ingram, one among my favourite R&B ballads. Once I completed making a song, Vinnie Liff gazed at me with an expression that made me uneasy. I would observed that glance in one thousand pairs of eyes. It used to be the gaze of an grownup within the presence of a precocious kid.

“That used to be relatively one thing, younger guy,” he mentioned. His tone alarmed me additional. It used to be delicate and paternal and rather patronizing. “Your voice is solely superb. How outdated are you?”

I felt I had no selection however to lie. The breakdown specified that candidates needed to be eighteen to 25. I used to be 16.

“I am eighteen, sir.”

“That is … glorious,” he mentioned moderately. “And … did you might have the day without work from faculty lately?”

“Oh, sure, sir. I did.”

“The place do you cross to university?”

“Neatly, in reality, I am nonetheless in highschool,” I advised him. “I am a senior.” Any other lie. I used to be a junior.

“All proper. Then the place do you cross to school?”

“I attend Taylor Allderdice and the Inventive and Appearing Arts excessive faculties in Pittsburgh.”

His eyebrows shot up. “You might be from Pittsburgh? Then why are you in Chicago? Do you might have circle of relatives right here?”

“No, sir.”

“You simply came about to be in Chicago?”

“No, sir. I—I got here for the audition.”

He leaned again in his seat with a sidelong look at Weyman. “You got here … from Pittsburgh … to Chicago for this audition? (What I got here to be informed later used to be that Actors’ Fairness, our actors’ union, calls for Broadway manufacturers to have open casting calls each and every six months whether or not they wish to or no longer. So—they truly did not want any one. This used to be simply a kind of required calls.)

“How did you get right here?”

“I took an Amtrak teach final evening, and I simply arrived this morning. I got here instantly right here, and I will be getting again at the teach to go back to Pittsburgh after we’re completed.”

Vinnie set free an extended, low whistle. “Wow,” he mentioned. “This is some roughly determination, son. It will serve you neatly.”

“Thanks, sir.”

“Neatly, I want I may give you a task at the spot, however the truth is that, as proficient as you might be, you might be just a bit bit too younger.”

“However I am eighteen!” I mentioned, hoping I did not sound as frantic as I felt. “The breakdown mentioned the age vary you might be searching for is 18 to 25.”

“Sure. Sure. I am getting it. You might be ‘eighteen,'” Vinnie mentioned. “Alternatively, you might be a long way too younger for our display. However I wish to let you know one thing.” Now he appeared me instantly within the eye and spoke with a low, degree depth that I knew used to be heartfelt and honest. “Stay going. Your skill is peculiar. And with a pressure like the only you will have proven us lately, you’ll be positive. Proceed to paintings, proceed to coach, and are available again to us actual quickly.”

His phrases have been type, however they have been no convenience. I knew no argument I may summon might be able to exchange his verdict, however I stood there for every other second anyway, tossing concepts about in my thoughts for some solution to regulate this disastrous end result. It could not all be over identical to this, may it? Once I’d come all this manner? My center felt like a trapped hen beating its clipped wings throughout the cage of my chest, and I may really feel the new tears development in the back of my eyes. Come what may I controlled to carry it in combination as I took my depart of the audition room.

However I wept all of the approach house.

Tailored excerpt from “Unprotected: A Memoir” through Billy Porter, revealed through Abrams Press. © 2021 Billy Porter. To be had October 19. 

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