Ladies and Gentlemen … Martha Graham Cracker!

What does it say that one of the most popular performers in Philly is an erudite six-foot-two drag queen with an abundance of body hair? (Only good things, people. Only good things.)

Photograph by Chris Crisman

“Sometimes I feel like Martha’s more well-known than I am — she’s eclipsed me.” Photograph by Chris Crisman

Hard to say what Martha Graham Cracker noticed a few seconds ago as she left the band and the stage and slinked through the crowd. Hard to say why she picked out from the 100 people packed into this blackened room a certain middle-aged white guy in a white button-up shirt, but right now Martha has her legs wrapped around this guy’s neck.

The guy is standing next to a rectangular bar at the back of L’Étage, a nightclub and cabaret off South Street. Martha’s sitting on the bar and leaning back into the bartenders’ space, legs up in the air so that her calves are balanced on the guy’s shoulders, wireless microphone in her right hand. She’s singing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” — like, really singing it, powerfully, seriously, an emotionally naked song about desperation and fear, singing it in her strong, lovely voice, a spotlight piercing the dark and illuminating her face.

And part of the comedy here, part of the reason that all 100 people are laughing and clapping in surprise and delight, is that Martha’s not even looking at the guy who is struggling between her legs. Smiling but struggling as a friend or partner films it on her smartphone. Almost certainly a new experience for the guy, being this close to a drag queen, much less a drag queen like Martha: six-foot-two and hairy-chested, hairy-armed, hairy-legged; not a man trying to pass as a woman but a defiantly unmown lawn of a man in a blond pixie wig and a blue dress and six-inch heels that are now crossed behind the dude’s neck in a hammerlock as Martha’s guitarist and bassist and keyboardist and drummer play the Whitney Houston song and Martha sings:

Don’t make me close one more door
I don’t wanna hurt anymore

The guy doesn’t know where to put his hands. At his sides? On Martha’s hairy, sweaty legs? But then something happens: As Martha burns through the song, her voice swelling into each chorus, ascending to hit and hold a couple of those famous Houstonian notes while people cheer and holler in recognition of the feat, the guy relents, goes limp. You can see him starting to enjoy the moment. He grabs Martha’s ankles and playfully crosses and recrosses her legs.

Martha sings the final note of the song, releases the guy (“You have graduated summa cum laude from my legs”), and crawls across the bar on all fours, pushing drinks to the side. Over the next hour and a half, she sings more songs that blur into banter and back into songs, the spotlight following her from crowd to stage and back again. She briefly steals a guy’s iPhone, pats a woman on the head and says “Goose,” and chats with a female veterinarian about the wonders of the pet medication Revolution. (“It gets rid of fleas, ringworms and heartworms. Is there anything else? Ticks? Fucking TICKS! … Viva la Revolución! Viva la Revolución! … The cats and I have a little game that we play called ‘Snort the Revolution.’”)

There are also moments of unexpected literariness. A story about a parking dispute with a woman in South Philly ends with Martha declining to give the woman the finger: “One cannot know what other people’s burdens may be! Maybe she was having a Sisyphean day.” A few minutes later, Martha riffs on the trend of “trigger warnings” in academia — disclaimers of violent episodes in literature. “So you go to college,” Martha says, “and you’re like, ‘I want to be exposed to a lot of different things!’ And one thing I guess you don’t want to be exposed to is” — her voice rises to a wail — “THINGS THAT MIGHT UPSET YOU IN ANY WAY! … Medea’s gonna kill her baby. Oh, did I ruin the play for you?”

THIS IS A STORY about Martha Graham Cracker and the guy who created her. A sort of dual profile. The guy’s name is Dito van Reigersberg. Dito is one of the founding artistic directors of Philly’s Pig Iron Theatre Company, which he started with a few of his college buddies in 1995 and which has survived for almost 20 years. Dito, who is 41, helps to choose and stage new Pig Iron plays, and he acts in many of them. He also acts elsewhere; this fall, he’s one of the leads in a Molière-inspired farce called La Bête at Arden Theatre Company in Old City. On top of all this, he performs one show a month as Martha at L’Étage, as well as regular gigs at Joe’s Pub, a 200-seat venue in the NoHo neighborhood of New York City. His boyfriend of some years is Matthew Neenan, founder of Philly’s contemporary dance company BalletX.

Now I’m supposed to establish the profile’s dramatic conflict, to tell you something about Dito/Martha that will pull you through the rest of the piece — like maybe that Dito has to fight a lot of homophobia to clear a space for Martha, or maybe that his work as Martha has overshadowed the other parts of his life and work in a way that causes trouble for him and must be overcome. But the reality is that Dito, aside from being one of the most wildly talented performers in Philadelphia, is probably also one of the most confident, happy and creatively fulfilled. And this fulfillment seems like a product of this moment in the city and in American history.

Twenty-five years ago, if you were an out gay man, much less an out gay man wearing women’s clothes on a stage, you could get beat up, threatened, shunned based on HIV status, whatever. Queer people are still vulnerable in America, still less than equal in many places, but gays can now marry in 19 states and Washington, D.C., and they can serve in the military without having to lie about who they are. The transgender actress Laverne Cox from Orange Is the New Black recently appeared on the cover of Time. Americans are becoming more comfortable with the spectrum reality of gender as opposed to the binary fiction. The culture is changing, finally, beautifully. And with this shift in attitudes has come an increased recognition of drag as an art form (although mainstream enjoyment of drag seems to wax and wane in cycles throughout American history). Today, millions have watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality-TV show that follows aspiring drag queens, now in its sixth season.

Dito is a beneficiary of this broader transformation. He can appear as Martha in the pages of Philadelphia Weekly and on the cover of the local music magazine JUMP, which called his act “the best show in town.” He can sing at L’Étage and flirt with straight men who have paid and stood in line to see him, and he can go to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where elites have decided for almost 140 years what is truth and what is beauty, and look out at 1,200 faces as he belts Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin songs in a wig. (He was the first drag queen to ever perform at the Art Museum.) Even when Dito encountered outright homophobia last year, the story ended happily. After parents at a Haddonfield child-care center objected to a planned kid-friendly Martha performance on the grounds that it would be “inappropriate,” the Christ Church Neighborhood House stepped up and said it would be glad to have Martha perform, and she did, dressed as a schoolmarm, reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham in a bluesy lilt to the accompaniment of an upright bass, as parents clapped and children danced.

If there’s any obvious conflict in Dito’s life, it has to do with his discomfort or uncertainty about how to process this kind of acceptance. About what he senses he owes to the previous generation of gay men who could never have reached the audience he reaches — who couldn’t have walked onstage to a sellout crowd at Joe’s Pub wearing a red sequined dress, red gloves, long black boots, a black wig and blue mascara.

He did this on June 20th, five days before the show at L’Étage. “Hello,” Dito told the New York audience in a smoky voice. Martha’s band — the act is officially known as the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret — was already onstage: a guitarist, Rich Hill; a bassist, Andrew Nelson; a keyboardist, Victor Fiorillo; and a drummer, Ned Sonstein. (Fiorillo works for this magazine.) “Thank you for having me back,” Martha continued, “for what I hope will be my sixth and final callback for Hedwig” — Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the hit Broadway musical about a transgender rock star named Hedwig, recently played to acclaim by Neil Patrick Harris. “I saw Neil Patrick Harris do it,” Martha said. “I also have three names. He is very thin.” Indignantly: “Do I have to starve to get thin?”

Martha has been performing here at Joe’s since early 2013. Joe’s is a bigger room than L’Étage. More obviously expensive. I sat in the middle of the floor next to a friend of Dito’s, a Japanese playwright who had just flown 30 hours to see his own play performed in New York. As Martha began to sing and mingle, I tried to pick out the elements that make the Cabaret distinct, both from other kinds of theater and from other drag shows. One was the apparent heavy reliance on improvisation. Many of Martha’s jokes seemed to emerge organically from interactions with specific audience members: an innuendo-filled dialogue with an Australian named Nick (“Say ‘fish and chips’ … that was super-hot”), a chat with a lean unemployed guy named J.J. (“J.J., how can you be unemployed, I can think of so many uses for you”). But then Martha would find new ways to reference these same jokes later in the show, creating a sense of unity and structure, of scaffolds being assembled in real time. Another key difference seemed to be the music; the songs weren’t lip-synched, as in other drag I’d seen, and they weren’t faithful covers, either. Each one had been transformed in some way. For instance, Martha did “Darling Nikki,” a weird and great Prince song about sex. (Most Prince songs are about sex, but this one especially.) While Prince’s “Nikki” is minimalist and industrial, Martha’s version began with a bizarre oompah-oompah beat, almost a polka, that fell over the cliff of the verse and into the chorus like an egg from a roof, the oompah cracking into hard-rock cymbals and loud distorted guitar, Martha suddenly screaming about the moment when I saw little Nikki GRIIIINNNNNDDDDDDDDD!!!!

It was awesome, and confusing. Pleasurable audience disorientation is another distinguishing mark of the Cabaret: disorientation about gender, of course, owing to Martha’s body hair, broad shoulders, height, etc., but disorientation beyond that, too. Sometimes it was clear to me that the individual in command of the show was a character — Martha Graham Cracker, a fictional persona created by the actor Dito van Reigersberg — but other times, his voice would change for a moment, becoming less breathy, less haughty, and then he seemed to be speaking more directly as Dito. And although the show was largely comic, there were moments when the room got quiet and I realized that all of us were fixed on a person trying to communicate something basic and urgent about pain and loneliness. So I basically experienced the Cabaret that night as a bright beam of speech and song without always knowing who was speaking or what was being channeled or exactly how I was supposed to feel. Which, it turns out, is the intent.

FOUR DAYS LATER, Dito met me in Rittenhouse Square. It was a hot, bright day, and when we couldn’t find a free bench in the shade, Dito suggested sitting under a tree. He wore a blue McLean Racquet & Health Club t-shirt, black shorts and sandals, and gave the impression of being a lot skinnier, bonier, than he does onstage. His voice was soft and friendly. I asked him about the mechanics of the Joe’s Pub show — how much was improvised? — and he said all of it was, pretty much, although he had prepared a brief list of story topics before the show. “I try to read people really fast,” he said. The freedom to improvise, he told me, is one of the reasons he enjoys doing Martha. He and an audience are heading into uncharted territory together.

His other reasons have more to do with where he’s from and his journey through adolescence. Dito grew up with an older sister in McLean, Virginia, which he describes as suburban, quiet, and close to the Langley headquarters of the CIA; the sons of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia went to his schools. Dito’s father, Fernando, who grew up in Spain, Morocco, Portugal and Holland, “was a little bit old-school,” Dito says, “in that everyone should be respectful and take turns speaking. I don’t think we ever swore in my household. … It encouraged me to be more demure and reserved.” Dito did like to put on his mother’s dresses and makeup, but only secretly, when she was at work, and he sang to himself in the bathroom: Prince, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner. Kids at school sensed that he was different and called him a faggot. His parents worried. “He would sit in his room and study,” says Fernando. “My wife and I used to say, ‘He has no friends. Nobody calls him, he doesn’t call anybody.’ He was very isolated.”

Fernando and his wife, Stephie, are linguists, professional simultaneous interpreters in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese; their job is to go into a booth, put on headphones, turn on a microphone, listen to a speaker, and translate from one language to another in real time. It requires a kind of performance. “You are always in front of a mic,” Fernando says, “and when it’s your turn, you turn on the mic and you have an audience. There are two schools of thought. We both think” — meaning he and Stephie — “that you have to kind of convey the mood and become the speaker. In other words, if the speaker is laconic and terse, you adopt that tone, and if the speaker is passionate and vociferous, you adopt that tone.”

It wasn’t necessarily clear to Dito that he shared his parents’ gift for impersonation until he tried out for the school play, Animal Farm, as a freshman in high school. “His life changed completely,” Fernando says, “and all of a sudden, he had tons of friends and was never home.” In the theater program, Dito found “the weirder riffraff” of his school, he says. He felt like he was getting away with something: “In a way, we could be popular because we were onstage. But we were also, like, the freaks.”

He ended up at Swarthmore, majoring in theater and taking a lot of literature and poetry classes. (Martha on Swarthmore: “A very strange school — like Hogwarts, but quicker.”) English professor Nathalie Anderson remembers Dito as “an interesting combination” of bashfulness and outrageousness. After a couple of years, Dito came out to his friends — but not to his parents, not yet. He graduated and moved to New York, as young actors do, and got an apartment in the East Village with some friends, and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse with an inspiring gay teacher who wore a handlebar mustache, skintight denim and big white tennis shoes. One of Dito’s favorite theater professors at Swarthmore had been gay, and now, in New York, it struck him again that there were role models. “There’s ways in which this is not going to destroy me,” he remembers thinking. “It’s actually going to define me, and I will thrive. And actually the worst thing you can do is lie, and live a life where no one can figure out what you’re thinking.”

Dito also took classes at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, founded by the eponymous diva. He loved hearing stories about Martha Graham. “She talks a little bit like her feet don’t touch the floor or her shit don’t stink,” he told me in Rittenhouse. He gave his voice a faraway, self-important quality and said, channeling Martha Graham: “When I look in the mirror, and put on the makeup just so, I see Jocasta looking back at me.” I am here to do serious dance, and to represent the deepest life force that comes through me through Greek myth. Even though Dito found that grandiosity kind of ridiculous, part of him was attracted to it.

The next few years after he finished his classes saw Dito “released into the giant shark tank/hullabaloo/etc. of NYC with cattle call auditions and temp jobs to look forward to,” he wrote in an email. “I think a kind of sadness or dread hit me.” Dito finally came out to his parents in a 3 a.m. phone call he placed from the apartment of a female friend; Stephie remembers the call waking her up from a sound sleep. She told Dito something like, “We love you, all we care about is for you to be comfortable in your own skin, and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

It was during this time of searching and slight despair that Dito first decided to appear in drag in public. All along in New York, he’d been going to drag shows at Crobar, a little place in West Chelsea. He’d seen Joey Arias, a singer with an uncanny ability to mimic the jazzy vocal tones of Billie Holiday. (Years later, Dito would perform a Peggy Lee song with Arias at Joe’s Pub. Arias says of Dito in an email, “He was truly sweet and ready to Bounce…!!!!”) And he’d seen another drag queen, Raven O, compact and muscular, with short hair and tattooed arms. “He was very rude to the audience,” Dito recalls. “He would be like: Listen. Shutupmotherfuckers. He would just like lay down the law. You start to realize that people come to drag sometimes to be berated. They’re like, yeah, tell me what an idiot I am, and what a motherfucker I am.”

One night at Dito’s apartment, his friends “wound up in the bathroom just shaving [Dito’s] legs,” says one of them, Scott Rankin. “That probably took an hour. Then we did the next leg.” Dito tried to dress like drag queens he’d seen, putting on a brown sparkly dress that went down to the ankle. Then they all went out to Crobar and had a few drinks.

“I was really scared,” Dito said. He remembers thinking simply: I’m walking around in public as a lady. It was an experiment, a way of testing and extending his identity. As awkward as it felt, though, it also struck a chord, as if Dito was somehow reconnecting with a younger, less fearful version of himself — the kid who liked to put on his mother’s makeup when she was at work. “There is a moment where you learn that something is wrong,” Dito told me, “or you learn you’re going to get teased for this, so you stop doing it, but somehow in your adult life, you’re like, what if I gave myself permission again?”

HIS DRESSING ROOM at L’Étage in Philly isn’t much to look at: a toilet and sink, a table, a large mirror bordered with round yellow bulbs. Room for three people at most. A paper sign taped to the door says PERFORMERS ONLY.

An hour before showtime, it’s just me and Dito in here. There’s a red bra on the table, a bag of wigs and other accessories on the floor. Dito’s eating a crepe and drinking a glass of water with vitamin C packets in it. Usually by now he’s busily consulting with his friend Max Brown, who has designed all of his outfits since 2007 or so, but Max just texted that she’s having trouble finding parking, so Dito starts applying some foundation makeup as he waits. “This is the one thing I can do without Max,” he says. “She can really do my eyes, which are the most important part.”

There’s a knock on the door. A waiter opens it, hands Dito an envelope, retreats. “What is this?” Dito says. He tears it open. It’s a card that says “Season’s Greetings,” for some reason. Inside the card is some kind of typed manuscript. Dito reads silently for a few moments. “Oooooh,” he says. “I think it’s about an English teacher who taught English by teaching song lyrics. It’s really beautiful. Yeah, someone’s like” — he reads it out loud — “‘If you scan Bon Jovi’s use of troches, it’s then simple to scan Marlowe’s iambic tetrameter. I’ll be there for you, these five words I swear to you.’” Dito taps his leg on each stressed syllable of Bon Jovi’s famous song. He’s not laughing; the look on his face is one of seriousness, curiosity. “When you breathe I’ll be the air for you, I’ll be there for you. Come live with me and be my love — this is Marlowe — and we will all the pleasures prove, that valleys, groves, hills, and fields, woods or steepy mountain yields.” Dito points to some text at the end of the page. “I love seeing works cited. ‘Bon Jovi, comma, Jon … Sambora, comma, Richard.’” He grins. “Wow. That’s exciting! And weird. I like to think my fans are weird.” He laughs. “Like me.”

He never thought the Cabaret would get this big. In the beginning, he told me, he was just having fun. Dito had always loved singing Aretha and Patti LaBelle with his friends, sometimes pretending a wooden kitchen spoon was a microphone. Says longtime friend Sanda Balaban, “We always used to say Dito has a little black woman inside of him.” Around 2002, he made his public debut as “Polly Vanna Cracker” when he appeared at Silk City with Fiorillo and musician and Pig Iron actor James Sugg — “The Brothers Suggarillo.”

By now Dito wasn’t shaving his body hair anymore; every time he tried, it grew back all prickly, and besides, the body hair confused people, which was interesting to him. (Dito’s style is known as “monster drag,” as opposed to “illusionist drag,” where performers are trying to look as much like women as possible.) The Brothers Suggarillo broke up in 2003. In August 2005, Fiorillo and Dito started performing as a duo at L’Étage — Dito had changed his stage name to Martha Graham Cracker — and the band added new members from there.

Crowds in the beginning were more heavily gay than they are now. But as the years went on and more people heard about Martha, audiences grew bigger and more diverse, to the point where Martha Graham Cracker, drag queen, was suddenly more of a mainstream taste than Dito van Reigersberg, actor. “Sometimes I feel like Martha’s more well-known than I am,” Dito said at the end of our talk in Rittenhouse. Then he tilted his neck back slightly and put ice in his voice. “She’s eclipsed me,” he said, mock-wounded. “I hate her.” He shook his head and said, “No.” Later he told me he finds Martha’s popularity “exhilarating” — it “almost feels like more of a compliment than them loving me. Wow, you really feel connected to this person who is related to me but is this invention.” His parents are among his fans. Fernando says what strikes him most about the Cabaret is the fineness of Dito’s singing voice, as well as “the originality of his improvisation. He engages the audience in a way that can be very risqué, and very measured, and he somehow understands who he’s addressing and how far he can push the envelope.” Stephie buys him jewelry.

So many people feel connected to Martha these days that Dito has begun to wonder about the growing acceptance of gay identities and what it means for the gay community: “Is something dying with that acceptance, that absorption into the mainstream?” He said he has poured some of this thinking into a new Pig Iron play based on the life of a man named Charles Ludlam. Ludlam, a gay theater impresario in ’60s, ’70s and ’80s New York, often performed in drag with a hairy chest, but he played straight roles, too (Shakespeare, Ibsen), and he founded his own troupe, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987, at the age of 44. According to Pig Iron’s Quinn Bauriedel, Dito has been asking himself what he owes to a pioneer like Ludlam — to the gays of a prior generation who lived as misfits and renegades in opposition to a mainstream culture that saw them as less than human. Pig Iron’s forthcoming play, called I Promised Myself to Live Faster, will star Dito as a Ludlam-inspired character who learns to embrace “the gay flame,” the special quality of the identity that shouldn’t be nullified or washed away. Dito said a goal of the piece is to pay tribute to Ludlam as a hero and forebear “but not to be too sanctimonious or self-serious about that sense of tribute or indebtedness.” A key scene is a schizophrenic soliloquy in which Dito carries on a conversation with himself: One side of him wants to follow his creative ambitions, “and the other one’s like: What about my moral confusion, feelings of guilt and doubt? ‘What do you mean, guilt and doubt?’”

Now, at L’Étage, the door of Dito’s dressing room opens: It’s Max, in a black-and-silver-striped dress. She washes her hands at the sink. Then Max and Dito fall into their routine, discussing a series of dresses hanging from a hook on the door.

“I thought various options,” Dito says, pointing to a sparkly dress. “This one for some reason looks wet.”

“Oooh,” Max says. “You’ve worn that recently.”

“Yes. So there’s this,” Dito says, running his hand across another.

“You know I had a dream about that one?”

“Oh really?”

“This is cute,” Max says of a light-blue dress. “Look at that.”

“Let’s go with that,” Dito says, regarding it, warming to it. “It’s summery. Let’s go with summery. I’ll be like” — he starts singing in a Billie Holiday voice — “You’re much too mahhhhvelous. … ”

“Now we can put a blue flower in your hair,” Max says, “and then I’ll put like the brightest blue eye shadow.”

“I’ll be a bluebird.”

For all the care, thought, energy and physicality that Dito puts into each individual Cabaret show, he’s not great at the business stuff, at planning the Cabaret’s future more broadly. He and the band are going to Poland this fall, their first trip abroad, but they could be doing a lot more. Dito’s friends say they don’t understand why Martha isn’t booking private parties in New York for $10,000 a night, and they wonder if maybe Martha couldn’t follow a kind of Hedwig trajectory, bubbling up from the grass roots to become this bigger, grander phenomenon. Quinn Bauriedel told me he hopes Dito can someday “get the Cabaret out of Philly as Philly’s greatest export.”

Dito is hesitant. He likes being involved in a lot of different kinds of creative projects and doesn’t want the Cabaret to crowd out the rest of his theater life: “I think I would get very bored or tired with just being in one kind of category for too long.” He worries, too, about damaging the show by scaling up. The things that Dito values about the Cabaret — the rough-edged, uncommodified nature of improvised performance; the ravenous movement through an audience whose members become part of the show; the sense at the end of each show that something has been created that has never existed before and will never exist again — all seem to require a room of a certain size.

And beyond the aesthetic reasons for making sure that Dito can connect with people the way he does, there’s maybe a personal one. Martha is a character Dito has created, an invention, but she’s a character who lets him express parts of himself that would otherwise stay buried beneath layers of shyness. And she’s a character who inverts the old power dynamic that held sway over young Dito in McLean, Virginia: straight boys calling him names, shining a spotlight on a kid who was different. “There’s a moment when I’m Martha when I’m somehow very comfortable being in charge of the room,” Dito told me. “Maybe it’s a little bit revenge. I’m the one in charge of this show, and I can sit on any boy’s lap and make him do what I say.”

Now it’s time for the eyes. Max reaches for a row of lashes and applies a layer of glue. Dito sits in his chair and closes his eyes. Max leans down silently to press on the first set of lashes, then the second. She withdraws. Dito turns to face the mirror. He straightens his back, purses his lips, bats his lashes, and suddenly there is Martha, wigless and dress-less but unmistakably she.

Dito doesn’t think he’s a very brave man, but as a woman …

“Boom shakalaka.”

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.