POSE, Porter, and the Cabaret Connection

by Michael Barbieri
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One of the most talked-about new TV series to hit the airwaves this season is POSE, the fierce, flamboyant, and unabashedly honest drama set in the world of the Harlem drag balls of the 1980‘s.  Created by groundbreaking producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, Pose examines the juxtaposition of the wealthy Wall-Street-boom-era yuppies, with the gay and trans people of color who mimicked their moneyed counterparts at the balls.  The show features a beautifully diverse cast, including transgender actors Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross.  Also featured are Charlayne Woodard, James Van Der Beek, Evan Peters, and Kate Mara.  

But for those of us in the cabaret and piano bar community, one of the true standouts is Billy Porter, the Tony and Grammy Award-winning actor, singer, director, composer and playwright, who was a big part of the piano bar and cabaret world in the 80’s and 90’s.

In POSE, Billy plays Pray Tell, the Master of Ceremonies of the balls we see.  He announces the categories in which the fabulous queens compete: Category IS...Dynasty Glam Realness!!  He reads contestants for filth if they don’t pass his muster: Darling, you will NOT be real until you shave off that BEARD!!  Lastly, he gives the crowd the scores for each contestant: TEN!  TEN!  TENS ACROSS THE BOARD!!!  He is, so to speak, the hostess with the mostest at the ball!  Offstage, Pray Tell is a father figure to the House of Evangelista, a group of disparate LGBT people who’ve chosen each other as family, and who long to snatch titles and trophies at the balls. 

Tying together many of the storylines, of course, is the AIDS epidemic.  Pray Tell’s lover, Costas, is dying of AIDS, and a number of scenes take place in a dismal hospital ward, where afflicted patients are shunned and  left with little to no real bedside care.  In Episode 6, “Love is the Message,” Pray Tell decides he must do something to make those patients feel like they haven’t been disposed of or forgotten.  He organizes a little cabaret-type show in the hospital’s common room, with nothing but a jangley piano and a few streamers for decoration.

This is where POSE got personal!  Let me explain:

In the late 80’s, as the AIDS crisis raged on, it seemed fairly clear to those of us in the LGBTQ community, and the cabaret world, that the government wanted to sweep us under the carpet, and we were going to have to help ourselves.  As struggling performers, we didn’t have money to donate, but we could donate our time and talent, so in 1990, Nancy Sondag and Matt McClanahan formed Hearts & Voices, an organization which brought live music performances into hospital AIDS wards all over New York City.  

At the time, my friend Scott Barbarino was a Project Leader for Hearts & Voices.  I was working in the piano bars as a singer and technical director.  Scott and I were two of the founding members of an all gay comedy Doo-Wop group called Scott Barbarino & the Bev-Naps, and performing with H & V seemed a perfect fit!

The shows were simple.  On any given night, different groups of singers would go to area hospitals, including Bellevue, Mother Cabrini, St. Clare, Roosevelt and others.  The groups were small - three or four performers and a pianist, and shows were never too long; an hour at most.  Patients would gather in a commons room, where there was usually an upright piano, and sometimes a sound system.  Singers brought their own sheet music, and there was little, if any rehearsal.  Sometimes, pianists would play songs by ear, and we’d fly by the seat of our pants.  And there was a big roster of singers from which to choose: Elaine Brier, Baby Jane Dexter, a wonderful vocal trio called Black Tie, Kristine Zbornik, Elena Bennett, Scott Traudt, Kathy “Babe” Robinson, Ricky Ritzel, Ruby Rims, Michael McCassey, Annie Hughes, Natalie Douglas and many more.  As Kathy Robinson put it, “The piano bar people were the first ones to really support this cause.  There were sign up sheets in nearly every bar and everyone wanted to help!”

In that Hearts & Voices-inspired scene from POSE, Billy Porter’s character, Pray Tell, sings “For All We Know” in that barren room in the AIDS ward, looking directly at his dying lover.  He’s wracked with emotion, but powers through it.  Eventually he’s joined by Blanca, the Mother of the House of Evangelista, who is HIV positive.  As she sings “Home,” from The Wiz, she freezes when she spots a sickly young woman in a wheelchair, as she realizes this could be her fate, too.  That moment hit home for me, as I’d had the same fears about volunteering for H & V.  I didn’t want to confront the disease or my own mortality.  But like Pray Tell and Blanca, I faced my fear and sang through it.  One of the most fulfilling, powerful moments I experienced with H & V was when I was singing with Scott Barbarino & the Bev-Naps at Bellevue.  After our performance, we were told there was a patient who had wanted to see the show, but was too sick to get out of bed.  We went to her room, gathered around her and sang two of our numbers a cappella.  We left the hospital feeling more uplifted than we could’ve imagined!  As I sat and watched the episode, Billy Porter’s performance brought all these memories crashing home, and he played that scene with such honesty, empathy, and heartbreak, that all I could do was cry!

POSE is more than mere entertainment.  It’s a history lesson, especially for younger generations of gay people.  It’s about the struggle of LGBTQ people everywhere to find love, equality and acceptance.  But most of all, it’s about family - the families we choose when our biological families turn us away.  They become the families who love and support us.  I was lucky to find such a family in the world of piano bar and cabaret.  Billy Porter will always be a part of that family, and like family, we’re all thrilled at his success in POSE!  

POSE has been renewed for a second season on the FX network