Warning: light spoilers for Pose's second season ahead.
In a warehouse far uptown in New York City, a ball is underway. Actors, dancers, and extras costumed in early 90s finery are fidgeting as they wait for the cameras to roll. We’re inside the Silvercup Studios set of Pose, which houses every set from the Evangelista apartment to the community hall where the Evangelistas compete, and that’s where we are today. As the camera shoots b-boys showing off their best breakdance moves, I stand onstage tucked behind Billy Porter, who has just been teasing me with vague spoilers about his Met Gala look — it’s May 3, and that ball is only days away.
This ball won’t be on TV for a few months. It’s the opening scene of the fourth episode of Pose’s second season, which premieres on FX June 11. While the journalists who have been brought to set for a tour and interviews with the cast haven’t been given a script, I start to piece together what’s happening from my perch on the stage. After the b-boys show off their moves, one of the show’s recurring characters makes a gag-worthy entrance in a look that’s an homage to the woman who jumpstarts the action of season two: Madonna.
No, the Material Girl doesn’t make an actual appearance — at least, not in the four episodes I’ve seen — but her impact on the ballroom scene that Pose has been bringing to life is one of the season’s guiding narratives. It’s 1990, and “Vogue” is the song of the summer, something that writer/director Janet Mock says means different things to each of the characters. We see “how they react to the spotlight and the attention that comes into a world that they created for themselves and is now being seen by those who have never entered those doors. Some want those doors to be closed, so that they can keep their safe space, some see opportunity for a greater, grander, more real future.”
One of those characters who sees an opportunity in the popularity of vogueing is Indya Moore’s Angel, who uses her ballroom skills to stand out in a modeling contest. “She is pushed to great heights,” explains Mock, who says that Angel’s success — and a surprising new love interest — comes with its own struggles. “She’s definitely grown in terms of what she understands she deserves,” acknowledges Moore, “and we see her apply that a little more in her life.
Another character hoping to capitalize on the new spotlight on her community is Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), but it’s at the expense of her own health. The first season of Pose opened with Blanca being diagnosed with HIV, and the second season begins with Nurse Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard, now a series regular) imploring her to start taking AZT and invest as much energy in her health as she does in her children — something writer/producer Our Lady J says was inspired by her own life.
“I’ve been HIV+ for 16 years, and I was faced with choosing life or death,” says Our Lady J. “I was given the choice to take the medication or don’t, and it was a real choice, I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in this world that didn’t accept me. I was at a real bottom and HIV woke me up, and the act of taking my medication every day became an act of living and a decision to thrive no matter my circumstances. It really was an incredible gift to wake up, it was also pretty traumatic, so I wanted to reflect that in the characters. It’s not necessarily a sad story, it’s what you make of it. We all have the agency to create change within our lives, and HIV inspired me to do that.”
Pray Tell (Porter) is another character living with HIV who is inspired to take agency in his life and for his community. The season premiere sees Pray Tell attending his first ACT UP meeting and leading a die-in at a Catholic church, railing against the religious propoganda that abstinence is the only form of safe sex.
Elektra (Dominique Jackson) also finds herself concerned with safer sex this season as she begins a new career as a dominatrix — after all, working at Indochine isn’t going to pay for mink coats. On a tour of the set, we’re given a glimpse of her new home away from home, the Hellfire Club, where she has a play room that has 50 Shades of Grey quaking. Channeling her domineering personality into literal domination is a logical career move for Elektra, who Jackson says she initially saw as the villain of Pose but who she’s come to understand is much more complex than that. “What I see is a woman who understands her circumstance and knows that there’s not going to be a path of roses laid out for her to walk on.”
One person who does see a clear path is Ryan Murphy, who has Pose plotted out through its final season, which will take place in 1995-96, when antiviral drugs were developed to help fight HIV. “To me, the show has always been about the demolition of a community that refused to be silenced,” Murphy reveals. “The show is really about a group of marginalized people saying, ‘I have a right to be here,’” something he sees as a clear allegory for the current political climate. “We all drank the Kool-Aid after Obama and said we made it, but we didn’t and a lot of our rights, people are attempting to remove them. In many ways, the ballroom community were such great pioneers for civil rights.”
One thing is for certain: queer people are watching Pose, a show that is finally letting queer and trans people of color tell their own stories. Rodriguez admits that the responsibility to speak for her community in the right way can be overwhelming, but it’s also a privilege. “We’re writers, we’re directors, we’re actresses. We’re out here actually showing the talents that we have, showing that we can do the work.”
And working on a show as fun as Pose makes things much easier. Mock recalls seeing the first trailer for season two, released just the day before our set visit. “I’m a part of the show and I’m like, ‘oh my god, this shit looks good!’”
Pose season two premieres June 11 on FX.
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