With Billy Porter at its center, ’Pose’ provides a vital reframing of queer history
Show’s second season sits at the vanguard of a wave of new, exciting storytelling — on the screen and the stage
The second season of Pose took us from Madonna’s “Vogue” to Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl “Star-Spangled Banner” and, in doing so, provided an epic, vital reframing of recent queer history. On Tuesday night, Pose, the FX drama that revolves around the New York underground ball scene of the 1980s and ’90s, concluded its second season with a tribute to the motherly heart of its show: Blanca (Mj Rodriguez).
Stricken with pneumonia that could prove fatal, given that Blanca has AIDS, the matriarch of the House of Evangelista rolls into the final ball of the season in a white-and-gold windsuit like the one Houston wore to sing the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. She begins her lip-syncing performance seated in her wheelchair, then rises to reveal a bright red bodycon jumpsuit and a forceful assertion of her own right to exist.
It was an emotional end to a season thick with ambition and fueled by righteous fury and mourning. At season two’s beginning, the voguing of the ballroom scene has broken out and gone national, thanks to a hit Madonna single driving housewives to their local YMCA to learn the latest dance craze. And yet, as the pop hit’s popularity peters out, so too does any long-term visibility or care about the community where it originated.
Pose provides a historical narrative of the AIDS crisis through the eyes of the black and Latino people who lived and died through it, but it also dedicates a significant chunk of time to the petty, internecine conflicts within the ball community: the birth of new houses and the death of old ones and the shuffling that goes on between them. Pose smartly navigates how these squabbles are shaped by what’s happening in the world at large, which provides the setup for a feud between Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson).
Faced with crate after unmarked crate of unidentified AIDS victims, Pray Tell is moved to action, and he can’t understand why anyone else wouldn’t share his urgency. Elektra is cartoonishly self-absorbed, as though she’s fashioned herself from an amalgam of easy-to-hate soap opera villainesses. But she’s also a worthy foil for Pray Tell. Her main concerns are finding new income streams to support her designer label habit, winning ball trophies and enjoying herself. When Elektra parades through a ball dressed as Marie Antoinette, Porter’s expression of annoyed disbelief is the final touch that turns a gasp-worthy scene into something truly memorable.
“Y’all created a guillotine for this mess?” Pray Tell asks. “For real?”
Their venomous rivalry is eventually quelled by the death of Candy (Angelica Ross) and the fact that she’s haunting all of them. Pray Tell and Elektra may not have much in common, but they are tied together by their condescension toward Candy when she was alive.
Like its down-on-their-luck characters, Pose finds ways to be joyful, urgent and hopeful. This season, it did so while winking at the inspiration for so much of its material, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning. Elektra, now working as a professional dominatrix, ended up stuffing the body of a dead client into her closet. The poor dear choked on his own vomit after Elektra left him alone, and no one had any faith that Elektra would be treated fairly if she called the police. The liberties Pose takes allow its audience to imagine a set of circumstances that might have led to the very real mummified corpse discovered in Paris Is Burning star Dorian Corey’s closet after Corey’s death.
Angel’s (Indya Moore) second-season story is a journey inspired by the story of transgender model Tracey Norman. And in her efforts to open her own nail salon, Blanca faces down a dragon lady of a real estate tycoon named Frederica Norman (Patti LuPone), a nod to New York’s late “Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley.
Pose is sure-footed and celebratory in positioning its queer characters as central to the story of American popular culture, and its fantastically curated soundtrack is a reflection of that. As it’s rethinking history on the screen, it’s also making it in the real world. Porter is the first openly gay black man to receive an Emmy nomination for lead actor in a drama. Because of her work on the show, which was her first job in television, Pose writer, producer and director Janet Mock became the first black transgender woman to land an overall deal with a major studio earlier this year. She’ll be calling the creative shots while developing her own shows for Netflix. The annual Latex Ball, the real-life Super Bowl of New York balls, organized by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was sold out this summer, with a line stretching down the block.
This summer, Paris Is Burning had a two-week run at New York’s Film Forum after it was digitally remastered by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. A national tour followed.
At the center of renewed interest in the ball scene and stories about queer people of color has been Porter, who swans down each red carpet he graces with a heady combination of daring, sweeping grandeur and camp elegance. The black velvet Christian Siriano tuxedo gown he wore to the 2019 Oscars was a gender-bending stunner, and then he followed it up at the Tonys with a gown made from the curtains from Kinky Boots (Porter won a 2013 Tony for his starring role in the musical).
But nothing, nothing, could top Porter’s entrance at the Met Gala. Its theme, camp, was a fitting tribute to queer history during the year of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Porter arrived swathed in gold, carried on a platform by a phalanx of well-muscled attendants, then unfurled a set of wings. Royalty had arrived.
As much as Porter enjoys claiming some rightfully deserved attention for himself, he’s an asset to Pose because, as its grand dame, Porter has made those around him better, pushing every scene he’s in and providing space for less experienced co-stars to do the same. Take, for example, the argument that takes place between Pray Tell and Blanca when Blanca finds out that Pray Tell, who is in his mid-40s, has begun a sexual relationship with Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), barely in his 20s, as they all reconcile what it means to be living with HIV.
“Will you stop flapping your gums for a minute and hear me out? Damn!” says Blanca, chasing after Pray Tell. “I’mma giving you the hard truth, Pray Tell, straight up! You are taking advantage of someone who is in a very vulnerable position right now.”
“HE came on to ME,” Pray answers. “You of all people should understand why I didn’t stop him. I’m 45 years old. Here’s a man who shows me kindness, who thinks I’m sexy! That doesn’t happen to me every day!”
But then the conversation takes a turn toward a subject that no one really wants to address but everyone fears: loneliness.
“You have no idea what it’s like to be a woman living with HIV,” Blanca says. “At least when you’re gay, y’all can live in the same war zone. Y’all can protect each other. Straight men still think they can catch this virus from a spoon! They want nothing to do with me. … Don’t you dare act like you know what it’s like to be me. You know what? Get outta my face.”
Rodriguez has grown into Blanca, and in her scenes opposite Porter or Charlayne Woodard (who plays the dance teacher to Blanca’s son, Damon Richards-Evangelista, played by Ryan Jamaal Swain) she is authoritative and unbridled. Her work in the beach trip episode is beautifully vulnerable, and there’s an assuredness in her delivery that’s developed since season one. Her emotions cut clear and deep. The pathos her Whitney scene evokes marks a high point — the mark of an actor who has continued to hone and mold her tools with careful precision.
Pose is also significant because it’s the most visible project among a new crop examining what it means to be queer, black and American. Most of that work is actually taking place on the stage, Porter’s first home as an actor, and he’s part of it. This fall, Porter is returning to his theatrical stomping grounds as a playwright. His play Remember to Live, about five gay men who lived through the AIDS crisis only to find themselves facing down new hostilities, both from themselves and the world at large, will debut at New York’s Primary Stages theater. Previews begin Oct. 29.
This summer, Playwrights Horizons theater debuted A Strange Loop, a new musical, with book and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson, about a Broadway usher and aspiring theater writer lost in an abyss of student loan payments and professional and personal disillusion. It’s a deeply felt journey through life as a modern black queer man in New York who doesn’t fit into the boxes of what acceptable black queerness is supposed to be — Usher feels too fat, too femme, too dark-skinned and, most of all, rejected. He feels like he’s interested in the wrong things and the wrong men are interested in him. It’s by turns an achingly piercing and hilariously irreverent portrait of what it’s like to feel marginalized from multiple communities while confronting one’s own self-loathing and contempt.
All of these works are about figuring out how to love yourself and others when the messages you receive, over and over, are that you are expendable, that you are dirty, that your life is not worth saving, your experiences insignificant. They are variations on and continuations of the internal struggles James Baldwin recorded in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, about a queer American man who has an affair with an Italian (Giovanni) while living in Paris.
Here, David is talking with his friend Jacques about his conflicted feelings regarding his same-sex assignations, and Jacques offers some advice:
“ ‘… if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.’ He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. ‘You play it safe long enough,’ he said, in a different tone, ‘and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever — like me.’ ”
These new works and their characters share commonalities with David and Jacques and Giovanni, with the star characters of Terrence McNally’s Some Men, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (which Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy is adapting for Netflix) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. They simply do it with brown and black people at the heart of the stories, as a new generation of artists simultaneously discover and assert their place in the American story.