Judith Light, Billy Porter return to Pittsburgh to accept Carnegie Mellon alumni awards


Judith Light and Billy Porter pose for a photo at the Carnegie Mellon University Alumni Awards on May 19, 2017 at the Purnell Center for the Arts at Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland. Light was awarded with the Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award and Porter was awarded an Alumni Achievement Award.

Judith Light (Class of 1970) and Billy Porter (‘91) were back on campus Friday as honorees for the 67th annual Carnegie Mellon University Alumni Awards, given for career achievements and service to the university.

Ms. Light, 68, the Emmy-winning actress known for TV roles from the daytime soap “One Life to Live,” to primetime’s “Who’s the Boss?” and “Ugly Betty,” and more recently, the Amazon series “Transparent,” has a long theater career as well. She took best actress in a play Tonys in 2012 and ‘13 for “The Assembled Parties” and “Other Desert Cities.”

This weekend she also will receive the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Monte Cristo Award, given to an artist whose work has had a major impact on American theater. “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail presented Ms. Light with the award.

At CMU, Ms. Light and Raymond W. Smith (‘59), a pioneer in wireless technology and retired chairman of Verizon, were recognized with Alumni Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Mr. Porter, 47, the Pittsburgh native and Tony- and Grammy Award-winning star of “Kinky Boots,” was a recipient of an Alumni Achievement Award. He was surprised during the awards ceremony with a tribute by Pittsburgh CAPA students -— he attended Pittsburgh Allderdice and CAPA before heading to CMU. 

Other CMU honorees this year included Lee Hollin, vice president of programming at CBS Network and CBS TV Studios, and Glen de Vries, president and cofounder of Metadata Solutions.

Before the awards ceremony, Ms. Light and Mr. Porter sat down for a quick conversation.

Mr. Porter was an adjunct professor and directed productions at CMU, while this was Ms. Light’s first visit to Carnegie Mellon since she graduated in 1970. The Purnell Center for the Arts, where the ceremony was held, opened in 2000.

Question: How is it that you haven’t been back in all these years?

Light: It’s striking to me that I haven’t been back! … It’s so odd that you tell me that I am in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, because it is so entirely different than when I was here. But what I think about always is my training. One of the things I am going to talk about tonight when I receive this extraordinary honor is that I never will forget how they talk about the program itself, they said, ‘It’s as rigorous and exacting as theater itself.’ It’s the thing that never leaves me. It’s about the challenges of not just our businesses, but the challenges of life and what that really means, and how does one come up to meet that challenge every single day. Not just in this career, but in any place in your life, in the world.

I went right into repertory theater for four or five years, which was kind of amazing for an actress just getting out of school. But that’s because this school gave us access and because they had networks and people that would hire you. That made all the difference. I started in theater, that was my training, and then when I left …

Here’s the fabulous Billy Porter. Come sit down bubala.

Anyway, when I left, and I did theater and I went into television … and then it was 22 years later that I went back into theater, in a play by Margaret Edson who won the Pulitzer Prize for it — which was ‘Wit.’ So you wait 22 years and then you decide to go back to New York and shave your head and get naked on stage, you ought to have seen your therapist a little more regularly. [Laughter.]

Question: You have played so many characters, is there one …

Light: You can’t ask me for just one. They are all varied and interesting and fascinating. It’s usually the one I am doing at the time. I was just telling Billy I did this play in LA, while I was shooting the fourth season of ‘Transparent,‘ with Al Pacino [Porter performed with Pacino in the film Barry Levinson film ‘The Humbling’] and so that was a really interesting character. And you know, Shelly Pfefferman [from ‘Transparent’] is a really interesting character …

Porter: God, is she ever!

Question: You got to do a big song — Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket” — that ended Season 3 of ‘Transparent.’ What was that like?

Light: What was daunting about it, the song they chose and how they wanted me to do it, that had to carry a lot with it. That was a challenge, but I had a tremendous amount of support. It was just fabulous.

Question: Is there a next thing?

Light: I will be going to the Sundance Film Lab in June. I don’t know what we are going to do with this play that I just did with Al, and then we’ll go back and start shooting the fifth season of ‘Transparent,’ so we’ll see.

Question: Do you think see things picking up for women behind the scenes in the years since you started?

Light: You do see more, but as the organization Women in Film in Los Angeles would tell you, it’s not enough. [‘Transparent’ creator] Jill Soloway talks about it all the time. Jill is a genius — I mean that literally, not as a compliment; it happens to be true. But she says that all the time: Where are we with not only women, but in a nonbinary world. Where are we living and how are we living with this kind of gender fluidity that allows a different … Jill always talks about ‘the female gaze’ and watching and looking at things through the female gaze. We have to be working at allowing and making opportunities for more jobs for women.

Question: Billy, that’s kind of a transition to your GLAAD speech. You gave such an incredible speech in accepting the GLAAD Media Award recently. What was that night like?

Porter: What’s amazing about everything going on in my life right now is that it was the active decision to abandon running after my idea of fame and choosing service, putting that into my body and understanding that meant I needed to be my full self. It’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular.

The idea that when I began this process, this journey that is my life, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I chose the truth, which was that I am black and gay, nothing would happen for me. From my church I wouldn’t be blessed, from this school, you won’t work. So to see that flip around, to have lived long enough to see the world. And to have the very thing that I was told to not work [playing the drag queen Lola in ‘Kinky Boots’] be the very thing that I am called on to do, in its fullest, is just breathtaking to me.

Light: It’s the bomb. I am totally with you. Unless one is one’s authentic self, you have no chance. You cannot do it.

Porter: And yes, there are people who are inauthentic, but at what cost? For me, it was like, there was no other choice. My breath is taken away — I can’t say it in a better way. I never knew it could look like this. I didn’t think it could, actually, if I am being honest with myself. But I made the choice to have no success if that’s what it meant. I was like, ‘Wherever I end, I will be authentic and I will be happy. I will be at peace.’

Question: Your new album “The Soul of Richard Rodgers” has all of these incredible people — Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Pentatonix … who is the rapper on the album?

Porter: Zaire Park — he’s not a Broadway person. [Mr. Porter explains he was brought aboard by a producer] when the other ‘Hamilton’ folk fell out, because they are superstars now! I had to bring in someone. …

Light: You some day have to see the play Billy wrote, it was just incredible …

[The play is “While I Yet Live,” produced by New York’s Primary Stages in 2014 and about growing up in Pittsburgh in a house full of women.}

Porter: The one I wrote about my mother …

It was suddenly time to face the crowd gathered to honor the CMU alumni in the Purnell Center’s Philip Chosky Theater.

Mr. Porter wanted to keep talking, about his album, about his concerts Aug. 26-27 at Hartwood Acres. But that would have to be a conversation for another time. There were awards to be handed out and an audience to inspire.