Billy Porter bares his soul in 'Unprotected'

UNPROTECTED: A MEMOIR by Billy Porter, Abrams, 288 pages, $28

Venture a few pages past the midway point of Unprotected, actor Billy Porter’s stirring new memoir, and you’ll discover the root of the introspective interrogation at hand. “It’s time to leave my past behind,” Porter writes. “My trauma has been my engine for my entire life, and I don’t want to be defined by my past anymore. It’s time to tell a different story. A story of healing.”

The result is not just a show business tell-all fueled by backstage dish from Kinky Boots rehearsals or Pose production — though there’s a full helping of that, as well. Through his experience as a gay Black man, repeatedly subjected to unspeakable pain, Porter delivers a searing indictment of how America treats race, sexuality, and anyone outside the norm. Clear and piercing, his justified indignation is as defined as his singular singing voice and flashy fashion.

Porter, 52, sets the tone by recalling his harrowing childhood. Growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, he was subjected to schoolyard assaults that left him with physical and emotional scars. His biological father swiftly left the picture, Porter says, and his stepfather molested him hundreds of times over a five-year period. In revisiting such suffering, Porter isn’t just mining his memories. He’s re-examining them to find how they informed his middle-aged perspective.

With raw vulnerability, Porter opens up on how the effects of childhood abuse long prevented him from loving Black men romantically. When Porter reflects on one brutal beating, which left him with a black eye and fractures, he points to his performance in a high school play the next day — injuries and all — as a turning point for his self-actualization. “My desire to be seen and heard in spaces where my humanity was consistently diminished or dismissed was my unconscious goal,” he writes in a subsequent chapter. “This unnamed burning in my soul would turn out to become the engine that fuels my focus and my dreams to this very day.”

Porter’s recollections are vivid and his prose playful, packed with amusing colloquialisms (“Werk!” is a well-used exclamation) and no shortage of sass.

Although Unprotected is largely a chronological affair, Porter threads in passages of coronavirus-era commentary to tether his past to the present. In a particularly poignant parallel, he compares the current pandemic to the height of the AIDS epidemic and its cruelly cascading loss of life. By the time Porter describes his own positive HIV test, in the spring of 2007, he has already reckoned with his religious upbringing and the uncomfortable contradiction between preaching tolerance and demonizing homosexuality.

Even if Porter’s sharpest barbs seem saved for the church and the GOP, he doesn’t hold back when confronting Broadway and Hollywood’s systemic shortcomings. The microaggressions he endures, such as the Miss Saigon audition in which he was told to “sing something a little less R&B,” are infuriating. Learning that he was repeatedly criticized as being “too flamboyant” before losing gay roles to straight men is even more maddening. An anecdote in which filmmaker Spike Lee purportedly lambasted Porter for talking “like a white boy” during a Malcolm X audition is tough to swallow. It’s no wonder Porter — who cites The Wiz, Dreamgirls and Angels in America as formative viewing experiences — pushes so passionately for proper representation in the arts.

Porter is also refreshingly candid on the allure of fame and industry accolades. While he does offer behind-the-scenes insights into his most recognized roles, as Lola in Broadway’s Kinky Boots and Pray Tell in the FX series Pose, detours about characters he nearly played onstage but didn’t — namely, the Witch in Into the Woods and Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch — prove just as juicy.

Despite all the people who second-guessed him, Porter makes it clear that he rarely, if ever, had any doubts about his talent. (Case in point: He refers to his Kinky Boots performance as “my undeniable slayage.”) Say what you will about such bravado, but for a Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning icon, the self-aggrandizing tenor fits the part. Whether he’s reliving triumphs or trauma, Porter bares his soul — just as he did all those years ago on that high school stage, bloodied and bruised. When faced with such honest audacity, one can only applaud.

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