Roughly 30 years ago, trans* actor/recording artist/pageant queen/activist Alexandra Billings was sentenced to death. The diagnosis: She was HIV-positive. She remembered the doctor's advice with the crystalline clarity: "He said 'I think what you should do is take your credit card and max it out. You won't be around to pay them off,' " Billings said.
Her partner ( now wife ) Chrisanne Blankenship wasn't having it. Years later, Billings recalled to Windy City Times Blankenship's response with a tone that could wither a rainforest. "So Chrisanne looks at him and says, 'Oh, she'll be around."
They then lived happily ever after.
Actually, there's a bit more to it than that.
From Schaumburg, with love
Billings, 56, is far more than merely "still around." With Blankenship by her side ( 42 years together, 22 of them married ), she's making history on television ( Transparent, Goliath, How to Get Away with Murder, Grey's Anatomy ), film ( Romy and Michelle: In the Beginning, Stealth, Pretty/Handsome ) and on stageall the while roaring as an activist, for LGBTQIA rights in particular and for humanity in general.
This month, the Schaumburg native who cut her teeth performing in Chicago everywhere from the Baton to the Steppenwolf makes her Broadway debut. As Waxy Bush, she's a gangster with an agenda in The Nap, a comedy about the very British game of snooker. Richard Bean's ( One Man, Two Guv'nors ) madcap farce opens Sept. 27 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by Tony-winner Daniel Sullivan.
"Alexandra is a force of nature," said Sullivan, before quickly qualifying, "I'm sure I'm not telling Chicago anything it doesn't already know. We're very lucky she came on board."
A tribe without a name
Billings career is not a matter of luck. Her HIV diagnosis was followed by years of homelessness, addiction ( heroin, opiates, alcohol, cocaine ) and sex work. She began transitioning in the 1970s, decades before the world even had words for trans people. In the most fundamental termslanguage that included a noun to claim as her ownBillings didn't exist back then. Except that she did. She knew it and Blankenship knew it. Chicago eventually caught on. It took the rest of the world a minute to catch up.
Today, Billings and her "tribe" are not only named, their names are in spotlights. There are at least five trans actors on Broadway. Miss Peppermint ( runner-up, Ru Paul's Drag Race Season 9 ) has the lead in the new musical Head Over Heels. Non-binary actor Kate Bornstein and trans actor Ty DeFoe are in the ensemble of Young Jean Lee's drama Straight White Men. Trans actor Bianca Lee is understudying both Billings and cis-actor Johanna Day in The Nap.
"We're in all the genres. I don't think that's happened before," Billings said.
Hello, my name is Waxy Bush
Waxy Bush is also new. While The Nap played to acclaim in London, Billings is creating the role for the comedy's Broadway premiere. "What's great about Waxy BushI mean, besides her name obviouslyis she's a trans character but being trans has nothing to do with the story. Waxy Bush just is who she is. She has all the power. She calls all the shots."
Billings knows full well what it means to not have "all the power." In the early '80s, she was arrested in Chicago for wearing "women's clothes" in public. She didn't understand why the cop was cuffing her. "He told me the law was if you were a man, you had to wear at least two articles of men's clothing if you were in public," Billings said. As she succinctly puts it: "Back then, the very act of just leaving my house was revolutionary."
Miss Chicago Goes to Hollywood
Chicagoans who remember the epic success that was Vampire Lesbians of Sodom or Billings' epic turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy know that merely leaving the house was Billings' thing. When she left, she made sure she eventually Arrived elsewhere, always with a Capital A, often with a Standing Ovation. Here is a Brief History of Leaving the House and Then Some:
At 14, Billings played Sebastian to Blankenship's Viola in Schaumburg High School's production of Twelfth Night. After graduating in 1980, Billings turned herself into Shante, a beauty queen who strutted her stuff through the gritty glamor of the pageant scene. She was won Miss Wisconsin, Miss New York, Miss Chicago, Miss Illinois and Miss Florida.
In her 20s and 30s, she scrubbed toilets in dinky dank theater dives with dubious adherence to city building codes. When she wasn't backstage, she was on stage, starring in shows that paid in "exposure" and a resume line. Eventually, she gained entry into Chicago Shakespeare ( HamletThe Musical! ) and Steppenwolf ( Time to Burn, Space, The Berlin Circle ). She cut records and gave countless cabaret performances, collecting Jeff and After Dark Awards in the process.
In 1996, she premiered a one-woman show about her life. "I'm not a woman," she told audiences in the ground-breaking Before I Disappear. "I'm a queen." Before I Disappear played to sold-out house here, in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway.
In 2005, Billings and Blankenship moved to Hollywood. Blankenship left her job at Macy's as Billings started racking up screen credits while teaching at Steppenwolf's west coast school and at the University of Southern California. In 2014, Billings booked Transparent, a then-unknown Amazon show. As Davina, she's back this year for a fifth season with Transparent. She made history last season, becoming the first trans actor to do a full frontal nude scene. Davina's backstory played out in Season 4: It included a snapshot of Billings in elementary school, and a flashback to Davina's career as a pageant winner and cabaret artist.
Of better angels and scrambled eggs
Self-doubt remains an issue, Billings said.
"Oh, please. I'm riddled with fear before making scrambled eggs. I'm, like, 'These eggs are going to be a disaster. I'm going to make this show a disaster. I'm a disaster," she said. "But here's what I do. Before I go on stage, I remember what I learned in Chicago. Be present. Be humble. Be truthful. Tell the story. In Chicago, I learned how to do the thing. How to be in the story. How to find the character. How to be in the thing."
As always, Blankenship plays a key role. "Very first day of Nap rehearsal, I was terrified. Filled with abject fear and a little on the weepy side," Billings said. "I'm a 56-year-old trans woman of color, living with HIV for decades. I shouldn't even be on this planet. Much less in a Broadway show.
"So Chrisanne says to me, 'That's great. Feel all the stuff. But when you get to that theater? You tell yourself: You. Are. Home.'
"I think I have a lot of angels around me," Billings said. "I know how this sounds, but I think a big reason I have survived is because Chrisanne has been with me for centuries."
A tribe with a name
Early on in The Nap rehearsals, Billings was walking through Manhattan's tourist-clogged Midtown. She noticed a woman had stopped dead in her tracks to stare at her.
"If there's one thing I've learned about New Yorkers it's that if you're going to stop dead in your tracks on a crowded sidewalk, somebody better be dead," Billings said. The woman had a small girl clutching her hand. They walked up to Billings. The woman spoke. The little girl stared. "The mom looked at me and said, 'My daughter is part of your tribe. She wants to meet you,' "Billings said. Billings knelt down and shook the little girl's hand. They posed for "about 500" selfies. They all hugged, and melted back into the bustle.
Billings said she doesn't have regrets. But there is this:
"I was transitioning in the 1970s. I wish I had had live flesh and blood humans that were trans. That I could see, walking around the planet. I look at trans kids coming up today, and I see how much has changed. It's still hard, but it's so different."
"I come from a tribe where 85 percent of us died in the 1980s and 1990s," she said. "I feel a responsibility to leave a mark of some kind in our history books. Something no governmental administration can ever erase."
The not-so-great pretender
Erasure has happened before and is happening now, she noted. Ronald Reagan refused to so much as utter the word "AIDS" during the whole of his presidency. The current White House is systemically scrubbing mentions of LGBTQIA people from governmental websites and rolling back rights that were codified decades ago.
"I think this guy in the White House pretending to be president is giving us all a great mirror; he's showing how important it is not to take anything for granted. He is everyone's responsibility," Billings said.
"I get pushback when I say that. I get it mostly from liberals who say well, 'I didn't vote for him. He's not my responsibility.' To which I say, he is all of our responsibility. He's president because first we made him famous. We made him a star. America made him. We allowed him to happen."
"We've got to keep speaking. Loudly. With clarity and kindness and compassion," Billings said. "We have to make sure we don't lose the stories of those who came before us."
"Also," she added, "I want people to see The Nap. It's glorious and silly and I am surrounded by the most some of the most incredible humans on the planet."
The Nap opens Sept. 27 the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York City; call 212-239-6200 or go to ManhattanTheatreClub.com .