"Season one introduced the world to Pose, but season two is going to let them know our voice," ballroom staple Jack Mizrahi said while hosting the afterparty of the show's season premiere event last week in midtown Manhattan.
Pose gets much more political in its second season, which premiered Tuesday night on FX. Members of the ballroom community get involved in HIV/AIDS activism, characters start challenging job discrimination, and the community grapples with voguing's sudden mainstream popularity after Madonna's "Vogue" video drops in 1990. The show's return—which falls during the pride month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots—feels especially prescient. The issues that the second season tackles are so relevant to today that Pose doubles as a record of the past and an urgent message for 2019.
"Season two goes a level deeper," Pose Runway Choreographer Twiggy Pucci Garçon told VICE. "It dives into what ballroom has always done. It's always been a place of activism, whether that's traditional activism like Act Up or just walking in a ball."
When Blanca Evangelista and Pray Tell scold people in their community for caring more about balls or partying than life-saving activism, it calls to mind today's LGBTQ activists who want pride to include more protest and less corporatized partying, or the social media posts of actress Indya Moore (Angel) encouraging followers to organize on their days off instead of just watching "the revolution" on TV. The tough realities characters face on the show, like the looming threat of violence against a trans woman character facing potential jail time, are still real life concerns for cast members, who raised awareness just this week about the death of a trans woman in the ball scene, Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza, who was found dead in her cell at Rikers Island on Friday. (Moore and other local activists who celebrated Pose' second season the previous week like Raquel Willis and Adam Eli went to a rally for Polanco Monday night.) And of course the season's prominent debate about the best way to react to vogueing entering the mainstream is more relevant than ever as places like The Met host vogue competitions judged by both ballroom icons and Anna Wintour. "When I think about the stories and script, I know people who have gone through things in season one and two. It's not just seeing ourselves on the screen, it's real life," Garçon said. "It's an emotional rollercoaster to be on set as much as it is to watch the show. It feels like life and art happening all at once."
The show's very existence as the first mainstream for-us-by-us ballroom drama series is practically a miracle. Queer Latinx writer Steven Canals' original script for Pose was rejected by nearly 150 Hollywood studios that didn't think there would be an audience for it. But his first "yes" from producer Sherry Marsh lead to him create the show with TV kingpin Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee, Nip/Tuck, and American Horror Story). Murphy then encouraged Canals and other LGBTQ writers of color to make the show as authentic to their experience as possible. The resulting series, which Canals called "a love letter to our community" at the screening last week, proves there is an audience for shows that celebrate raw three dimensional Black and Latinx LGBTQ characters, and make them the heroes of their story.
Pose creators seem keenly aware of the catharsis they offer simply by showing LGBTQ characters coming out on top. Janet Mock (who also became the first trans woman of color to direct a television episode working on Pose) started to choke up giving a speech at the premiere when she proclaimed the show is a reminder that, "we have always been our own heroes." She continued, "This show is a big, bright, glittery disco ball emanating the message of hope and love. To those who are so often silenced and invisibilized and erased, it tells them that we got you and that we see you." The second season plays up characters' winning moments like letting Papi throw an extra punch at a sleazy photographer he beat up for trying to blackmail Angel. They also linger on Angel's body in photoshoot scenes, inviting the audience to ogle at a trans woman beauty symbol and revel in actress Moore's real-life success modeling for Calvin Klein and becoming the first transgender person to make the cover of Elle.
"The show acts as a vehicle for the ballroom community and the community is a vehicle for folks to be free," Garçon explained. That became clear in moments like when actor Jason Rodriguez (who plays Lamar in the House of Evangelista) leapt out of his seat in The Paris Theater once Mock mentioned his name in a list of acknowledgements. He was rocking bright pink hair with a leather crop top that exposed his entire chest and his bold move made everyone around him jump up cheering as if the world was their own ballroom. And at one point of the afterparty groups of people were slowly strutting through the crowds performing for no one but themselves. Their sense of reverence for the show is paralleled only by fans, like an older Black woman who told me she snuck into the after party "incognito" to honor a dead friend from the House of Labeija that took her in when she first moved to New York.
Though set at the beginning of the 90s, Pose is a timely reminder that ballroom keeps coming back because of an enduring relevance. "Ballroom has always had something to say and something to teach through our struggles, a lot of that is about making a way out of no way," Garçon said. LGBTQ activism in the Trump Era is about making a way where there seems to be no room. And Pose is an expert at manufacturing victory out of desperate circumstances.
Mock said it best: "We hope Pose continues to be a solve, showing people what inclusion looks like, what family looks like, what community looks like, what radically loving and accepting one another, especially those most marginalized and discarded, looks like."
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