Epiphanies come in many forms, but how often do they arrive in the persona of Jennifer Holliday?
For Billy Porter, seeing her perform on the 1982 Tony Awards broadcast was akin to a visit from the Virgin Mary or being touched by the hand of God Himself. So when Porter launches into "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going," Holliday's titanic Dreamgirls tour de force, there's not a trace of self-indulgence to be found. He presents the song in his new one-man show at Joe's Pub as an offering of thanks to the woman (he calls her "The Angel Holliday") who unknowingly saved his life twice: on that Sunday night in 1982 and years later when his memory of that performance helped him survive a savage beating in the Pittsburgh ghetto in which he lived.
There's no more galvanizing moment in Ghetto Superstar (The Man That I Am), nothing else that tells you as much about the man and talent that Porter is. But while he does a spot-on impersonation of Holliday, perfectly mimicking the vocal quality, stutters, and gasps that marked her definitive rendition of the song, he's even more effective when playing a still more elusive and difficult character: himself.
Porter uses all 100 minutes of Ghetto Superstar to come to terms with his life, in ways critical, loving, and humorous, but always honest. He pulls few punches: He cites his mother as an example of bravery for fighting her lifelong battle with cerebral palsy, but takes her to task for her condemnation of him for his homosexuality; he openly questions religious attitudes about being gay, but admits that his voice has always been his one true connection to God.
If you can think of nothing better than hearing Porter demonstrate that connection live, you won't be disappointed, but you also won't be hearing a series of disconnected songs. He wraps his faultlessly flexible, gospel-drenched voice around over a dozen numbers, some of which he's written and incorporated into the action to help him tell his life story. Two - "Sissywhippers," about his struggles against bullies in his youth, and the moving "Time" for the evening's end - reveal a particularly sharp dramatic sense. Others, like "The Real Me" and "All to Myself," are less effective contextually.
But all the songs are handled deftly, not just by Porter and his "black-up singers" Sasha Allen and Brandi Chavonne Massey, but by the show's director Brad Rouse and musical director David Cook, who always keep the drama of Porter's life story squarely at the forefront. They have it easy, though; Porter has spotted many of his songs with enough creativity to make you wish that purveyors of jukebox musicals would pay attention to how it should be done. The traditional "Jesus Loves Me" becomes his singing debut at age four; "Where Is Love?" from Oliver!, with elaborate vocal stylizations, is an adolescent audition piece; and "Love Is on the Way" becomes a symbol of the ultimate music business indignity, when Porter's inflections become uncredited fodder for a Celene Dion hit.
Porter claims that the record executives behind that choice gave her his soul; while that might be true to a degree, he demonstrates time and again that he's still got plenty to spare. He reveals that soul, as well as refined acting ability and a gift for connecting with an audience, in spinning the series of anecdotes the provides the show its structure. These range from the tragic (an ill-fated audition for Dreamgirls) to the comic (his theme park performing experiences), from the appalling (sexual abuse from his stepfather) to the erotic (his first sexual experience at age 16), from the destructive (losing his voice) to the redemptive (freeing his voice again by letting go of his inner demons).
The piece is so tightly constructed and performed that, by the end of the show, you feel you know Porter so intimately that his donning red high heels - in tribute to himself and his mother, whose fondest dream was to be able to wear them - and strutting through "Use Me" (another Porter original) seems almost anticlimactic. The preceding scene, in which he imparts his final messages of God-granted wisdom with the fiery fervor of a Pentecostal preacher, is more powerful.
No matter - too much Porter is better than too little. And as he explains numerous times during the show, his goal is to sing as high as he can, as loud as he can, for as long as he can; for his sake, and ours, let's hope that's a good long time. Ghetto Superstar proves that, whether for speaking or singing, Porter can never open his mouth often enough.
The Public Theater