Twist, a queer pop-rock musical that opened Dec. 1 in L.A., weaves Victorian erotica, dark comedy and gender-bending into Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Driven by physical desire but begging for more, Oliver journeys into an underworld ruled by a male dominatrix—Fagin—played by former Chicagoan Alexandra Billings.
' [ This ] is the first time in twenty-plus years of theater that I've ever played a man,' exclaimed the trans actress, whose novice years included shows with luminaries like Carol Burnett, Yul Brynner and Sandy Duncan. Formerly a female impersonator, Billings made the leap to professional acting in the 1980s, when she starred in Chicago's rendition of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a role that won her an After Dark Award for Best Actress in a comedy
'My past…helped me get my foot into that particular door, which was some weird bridge between female impersonation and legitimate theater. Everything that I had done before helped me on the road ahead.'
Billings has since appeared in dozens of plays, including Xena! Live!, Larry Kramer's Just Say No and her one-woman autobiographical show, Before I Disappear. Her first television role was on the ABC movie Romy and Michelle—A New Beginning. She's also appeared on ER, Karen Sisco and Grey's Anatomy.
She currently appears in Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation ( GLAAD ) 's 'Be an Ally & a Friend' public service advertisements that encourage viewers to treat people with respect regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
As the first openly trans actress to play the many theatric roles of her career, and the first trans woman to play a transgendered female character on television, Billings has broken many barriers. But don't call her a pioneer.
'You say the word pioneer and I think of some woman wearing a bonnet and churning butter. I just wanted to work. Now, when I look back, I think to myself, 'Wow, I guess that is kind of important.''
'I'm 43 years old and I'm everybody's grandmother in this town,' Billings jokes. 'All the roles that didn't go to Jessica Tandy are going to me. But that's just sort of the nature of the beast. The camera is just a very unforgiving monster.'
Billings ( www.alexandrabillings.com ) identifies as a lesbian woman and is married to director Chrisanne Blankenship, whom she's known since high school, where they were cast in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as brother and sister. 'Of course we look nothing alike. I'm brown and have dark hair and she's practically invisible because she's so white. [ But ] I was in love with her and I had to have her close to me.'
An accomplished singer, Billings was awarded the New York MAC Hanson Award for Cabaret Artist of the Year in 2004, and release two CDs, including her debut, Being Alive, which was up for Grammy consideration.
HIV-positive for several decades, Billings has sat on the Board of Directors of Season of Concern and worked with Healthworks Theatre, an AIDS educational theatre geared towards teens.
To combat HIV in the trans community, Billings argued that more trans people need to come out: 'There's no reason to lie to your partner; there's no reason to make up a past. You've got to embrace what happened to you because…whatever happened to you informs what's happening to you now.'
Billings has found her own past relevant to her role of Fagin, who—halfway through the play—changes into a dress. 'He plays the rest of the show as sort of a female impersonator! So all of my past… [ I ] just dig that up.'
Playing Fagin has led to some unusual compliments, as when an audience member asked her to sign his program: 'I flipped open to my picture and signed. And he said, 'That's you? I thought you were this guy.''
Twist plays at L.A.'s Avery Schreiber Theatre through Dec. 30. Tickets can be purchased at Theatermania.com . In spring 2008, Billings will appear in The House of Yes.
The trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall co-authored Blind Leap, the second installment of the Blind Eye mystery series available now. For more information visit anderson-minshall.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .
© 2007 Jacob Anderson-Minshall