Pray Tell | 07
Continuing our exploration of stories of on-screen characters and celebrities, who have positively represented the LGBTQIA+ community in mainstream media, in this episode, it's all about Pray Tell from Pose, played by American actor and singer Billy Porter.
From MotorMouth Podcasts, I’m Mahir and you’re listening to the MotorMouth Original – Queer’s The Word. This is a show where I bring to you queer stories, experiences and everything queer.
In this episode, we continue talking about another fictional character in queer media and the actor who garnered a total of three Primetime Emmy Nominations and one HISTORIC win for playing that very role. Today, we talk about the fabulous Pray Tell, played by the equally – if not – MORE fabulous Billy Porter, from the FX original series, POSE.
“There’s nothing more tragic than a sad queen” says a reassuring Pray Tell to Blanca Evangelista early on in the series – and when I say we all need a best friend like him to count on, I mean every single bit of it. Steven Canals and Ryan Murphy’s breakthrough series POSE centres around New York City’s African American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming ball culture in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The series was, in several ways, inspired by the 1990 documentary film “Paris is Burning” and that’s what also gave birth to the legendary character that would eventually be played by the evergreen Billy Porter. The outward persona of Pray Tell was inspired by the grandiloquent Junior LaBeija, from the legendary house of LaBeija, who served as the emcee on the ballroom dancefloor as members of multiple houses of the eighties’ New York City vogued it out for trophies after trophies. As The Hollywood Reporter says, he grew up African-American, gay and was living in Harlem – he had to have wound up there. And so is also the story of Pray Tell. But there’s more.
Midway through season one, Pray Tell learns that he’s HIV positive, much like his best friend, and ballroom fixture sister Blanca. But they’re not the only ones dealing with this crisis. By 1990, the AIDS pandemic had infiltrated the entire LGBTQ+ community in the United States by killing about 100 thousand people. Out of these, almost 31 thousand deaths were only reported in 1990 itself. The horrific nature of the pandemic reflects on the show, as we see not one, but two of Pray Tell’s partners lose their battle to AIDS. According to me, season 2 begins with one of the most sombre scenes I’ve witnessed on television where Pray Tell and Blanca visit a mass grave for the bodies of people who had lost their lives to the virus. It’s chilling beyond words. And with death and doom and gloom all around him, Pray Tell continues to live his life as an HIV positive person. He is still hosting glamorous balls, playfully feuding on the dancefloor with Candy Ferocity while also performing numbers at the annual AIDS gala. But his character is so much more nuanced. He’s constantly figuring out his place in various scenarios after his diagnosis – in his dating life, in socio-political contexts, even as a friend and a father figure to his ballroom contemporaries. At no point, was the portrayal whitewashed with idealism. In the third season, Pray Tell deals with a severe bout of alcoholism to the point that Blanca has to stage an intervention. Even after that, it isn’t quite easy to get Pray to a rehabilitation centre because that’s how real life situations play out. And the writers get that. Janet Mock, who serves as the lead writer and director on multiple episodes has not only beautifully executed the story arcs but has also made history by being the first trans woman of colour to write and direct an episode of television. She has also been nominated for more than one Primetime Emmy Award. The show and its characters have cemented their place in history as a ground-breaking queer show, and if you haven’t watched it yet, you’re certainly missing out.
On the other side of the break, I will be sharing with you a short poem I’ve written keeping in mind the absolute legend that is the character of Pray Tell.
Welcome back! This is Queer’s The Word from MotorMouth Podcasts and I’m Mahir. Today, we’re talking about another character from queer television who’s cultural impact has created massive waves around the globe. Today, we talk about Pray Tell from the FX original series, POSE.
Now, the reason I chose to talk about this show in particular is because POSE has been such an important show, not only globally but it has also helped me to understand the kind of stories I want to tell in the future. I believe that we’re at such a cusp in the history of television that we get to see queer characters in almost everything that we come across. And that’s great – sometimes all you need to watch is a mind-numbing romantic comedy but not a heterosexual one, and we do have options for those now. But at the same time, filmmakers also need to fill a huge gap that exists in the history of queer cinema. Because it’s only now that we’re beginning to go mainstream and it’s time that queer storytellers from all mediums alike share their gayest stories with the world. With that being said, I’m not quite done with the characters of POSE yet.
But for now, it’s time for me to share with you a short poem I’ve written for our person of the day – Pray Tell.
the category is –
live, work, inspire –
he sews together lives
with threads of love;
a hem of truth, verity;
hiding in the underbellies
of his powerful monologues –
he’s grounded in reality,
love is his message;
but he is also tens across the board
in extravagance, abundance and ferocity;
for he makes all of us
feel mighty real;
Pray Tell – we aren’t sad queens anymore.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Queer’s The Word.
I’ll see you in the next episode.
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You can find music and other credits in the episode notes.
This episode was written and hosted by me, Mahir.
Sound production, design and mixing by Prateek Sharma.
Our show cover art is designed by Rishikant.
Our Creative Director is Gargie Sharma and this show is Executive produced and created by Prateek Sharma, for MotorMouth Podcasts.