Ballroom Voices

FX’s groundbreaking Pose includes the largest-ever cast of transgender and LGBTQ actors on a scripted series

Pose leads with fabulousness and takes viewers back to New York City's drag ball culture of the late 1980s.

Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, Pose kicked off its first season with a storyline about the ballroom rivalry between the House of Abundance and the House of Evangelista, each run by unique den mothers who share in common their commitment to excellence.

Elektra Abundance, portrayed by Dominique Jackson, is a tough boss who is plagued by her own insecurities and is awaiting gender reassignment surgery. Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), a former protégé who breaks away to start her own house, is HIV-positive and aims to leave a legacy with her remaining time.

With the support of the ball circuit's charismatic master of ceremonies, Pray Tell (Tony award-winning Billy Porter), she gathers a gang of outsiders—LGBT youth who were voguing long before Madonna brought the style to mass market popularity.

Amid its outrageous costumes, vivid makeup, big hair and spectacular dance numbers, at its heart Pose is about people craving a stable home life and inspirational parental surrogates. The characters seem to find comfort in Blanca and Elektra sitting them down for discussions about safe sex, AIDS testing, gender reassignment surgery and even why straight men are attracted to trans women and drag queens.

The creators clearly want viewers to be immersed in this unique world, even as most are unfamiliar with the rites and passages of drag ball culture. The balls were a safe place for people then considered to be society's misfits to be themselves and to compete against each other through costume and dance and bring glory to their respective houses.

The glamorous divas who run the places take the rivalry very seriously. "I am going to eat you like an after-dinner Rolaid," snarls the imperious Elektra to the upstart Blanca before a competition.

Pray Tell is also known for zingy one-liners that throw shade on the participants.

Yet Pose also features its share of heartwarming – and heartbreaking – dialogue reflecting the realities of a world of fear, repression, bullying and discrimination that the balls cannot mask - including the terror of the AIDS epidemic that is ravaging the community.

At one point, Blanca delivers a poignant speech upon learning of her HIV-positive status.

The first season of Pose premiered in June 2018 and Season 2 is slated to begin June 11.

"I feel a change coming. Joy is a choice. Choosing life in the darkest of times is a choice. That's what the ballroom scene is about," Porter says in a teaser trailer for the new season, which also sums up the theme for the entire show.

FX clearly gave the producers free creative rein on the show, whose episodes often exceed the typical run time for an hour-long slot.

Pose is technically Murphy's last show for the cable network as he enters a mega-deal with Netflix although his other franchises, American Horror Story and American Crime Story will continue on FX.

Not only does it cast five transgender women in series regular roles – an unprecedented number – the program's writing staff includes the leading trans voices of Janet Mock and Our Lady J.

Murphy has said the project would have been impossible to make without them and other members of the production team who are part of the community.

In addition to co-creator Canals, trans activist and director Silas Howard is also a co-executive producer.

The casting process took six months and was led by casting director Alexa Fogel with Canals, Mock and Our Lady J.

Murphy has said his favorite thing about it is that Pose opened the door to a community of people who don't have many opportunities to become involved in a mainstream Hollywood project and that he hopes the doors remain open for them.

"Television is such a powerful medium that now is the time to put these stories and these compassionate, wonderful characters out there to remind people that we're all the same and that we're all struggling for the same things — to have dreams and to be loved," Murphy explained in a recent interview. "I wanted to humanize the trans community, and I thought now was the time to do it."

The prolific producer doesn't just speak inspirational words about inclusion.

As part of his Half Foundation, emerging trans directors from the series will be mentored through a directing program, an initiative he says is even more important now that President Donald Trump has made several efforts to roll back transgender and gay protections including a ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military.

Not coincidentally, the rise of Trump-era ostentatiousness in the 1980s is juxtaposed against the ballroom scene and the mostly hardscrabble life of its participants. The creators say they didn't want to shy away from the political and social realities of New York City at the time.

At one point Murphy even considered having Trump as a character, but decided the audience sees enough of him elsewhere and that it would distract from the stories of the other characters. The boss figure in the Trump organization became one played by James Van Der Beek.

One of the subplots involves a married man, Evan Peters as Stan, who works for the Trump real estate development company and carries on a relationship with a streetwalker, House of Evangelista's Angel (Indya Moore).

An episode that Mock directed—her first time helming a show—was called "Love is the Message" and it partly deals with Stan's wife, played by Kate Mara, coming to terms with her husband's affair.

Yet most of the episode concerns how characters deal with HIV and AIDS, with Pray Tell at the center of it, dealing with a partner's disease symptoms and his eventual demise. Mock co-wrote it with Murphy and both pulled elements from their own lives in order to ensure authenticity.

Canals, who originally shopped the pilot script in 2014, has made it clear that he doesn't want viewers to feel like they are watching a history lesson about the AIDS epidemic of the time. Yet he admits it was a tricky balance to tell the narratives in a way that the stories would still be hopeful and aspirational, emotions not often associated with a marginalized, non-white community.

He says the show is about family, acceptance, authenticity--and survival.

For its vivid portrayal of a unique subculture, and depiction of such topical issues as LGBTQ prejudice and acceptance, Pose is a worthy recipient of one of the 2019 Television Academy Honors.

For the award presentation and acceptance video, click here.

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