For over a decade, Philadelphia-based Dito van Reigersberg has performed as drag queen Martha Graham Cracker (MGC) in cabarets, theaters and museums. Most notably he recently spent a year in residence at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, discovering new heroes and friends for his alter ego MGC to introduce and cavort with on stage. Ahead of his act, “Things Aren’t Always What They Seem,” part of Boston Pride Week celebrations and sponsored by the Jewish Arts Collaborative and Keshet, van Reigersberg spoke to JewishBoston about the art of drag and his Jewish influences.

How did you come to create Martha Graham Cracker?

When I was studying acting in New York City in the mid-‘90s I went to see some great drag queens and became a big fan of the art. In addition to taking acting classes, I also took a class in modern dance in the Graham technique. I had studied Martha Graham’s work in college and really enjoyed it. She was a genius in that she invented a new way of moving, and I thought if I ever were to become a drag queen, I would adopt her as my alter ego.


Martha Graham Cracker—MGC—is an unusual thinker and has a unique aesthetic. She has a strong belief in mythology and characters from our ancient past. She is a little like Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard,” in that she can be a lonely diva who creates an insular world all in the name of sacrificing for her art. 

You’ve been hailed as Philadelphia’s best cabaret act. What happens in your act?

Boston audiences will hear an array of songs with a live band. They’ll be pop songs you may know. But they are performed with a twist, in that they may take on a different theme or arrangement. I make a known song strange, and that is a metaphor for what my drag is—it’s neither comfortably male nor female. It’s a version of gender you’ve never experienced before. The act itself is an interactive performance, during which I flirt with the audience and get to know some of them by name. MGC is also funny and quite charming and has a lot of things to say about the world. Her heartbreak and loneliness are expressed in song, and shades of emotional complexity emerge.

What is “monster drag” and why do you like performing it?

When I started doing MGC as a character, I wore dresses that showed my hairy chest, legs and arms. The illusion of being a woman was not complete, yet I was in full makeup. What I like about MGC is that she is very confusing. She has a made-up woman’s face on a lumberjack body. Illusion drag, on the other hand, is a real femme presentation. A person could walk down the street with a lot of makeup and be convincing in presenting as a woman. Monster drag is more edgy. I enjoy the movement of a strange character who is failing to be female in some ways.

Why did you do a yearlong residency at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia, and what came of it artistically for you?

I am Jewish on my mother’s side, so I was getting in touch with my Jewish roots. At first I walked through the collection to connect to a heritage I didn’t know much about. I visited the museum a lot and found some heroes along the way. Some of them were famous, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and some were particularly important to me, like Rabbi Alysa Stanton, the first African-American woman rabbi. I also became fascinated with a woman named Sheindela, who dressed as a male cantor in the 1930s. In her cross-dressing, as well as her singing, she broke the gender barrier. She made her own space in the world of music and the world of Jewish tradition. For her part, MGC calls herself a gender warrior, and I think of Sheindela as a gender warrior too.

I ended up playfully relating the museum materials and subjects to MGC’s act. For example, at one point she has a crush on Leonard Bernstein and dates him. There is also a lot of Jewish music in the act inspired by Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill. I’m essentially taking an audience through the museum and then using it as a springboard artistically. 

What else did you learn at the museum?

I learned a lot of new words. In college I had gone to a couple of seders and loved the term dayenu. I shout it out throughout the show. I also love the word sheitel, which is Yiddish for wig, because I’m always wearing a sheitel. I don’t particularly think of MGC as a Jewish drag queen, but the show has Jewish themes. After my time at NMAJH I was also more aware of the Jewish tradition of asking questions. There’s a lot of encouragement to inquire and to be exhaustive in the desire to know the truth. When I asked my mom what was the thing about being Jewish she loved most, she said it was the questions. That’s something that I’m excited about and am particularly proud of in terms of Jewish culture and heritage.

Why do you think so many different people embrace MGC?

She is quite bold yet user-friendly. And she’s sensitive to whomever she’s interacting with. People tell me all the time, “I left your show and my face was hurting from laughing so much.” People from all walks of life like laughing. People who are drawn to MGC aren’t necessarily gay or drag aficionados. She’s democratic about who gets drawn in.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Find more information and tickets to Martha Graham Cracker’s show on June 15 in Cambridge here.

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