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A Night at the Tombs

Transgendered performer Bianca Leigh's musical solo about her arrest for prostitution is enlivened by her wry wit and charming demeanor.

Bianca Leigh in A Night at the Tombs
(© Michael Wakefield)
Transgendered performer Bianca Leigh has a wry wit and charming demeanor that enlivens her solo show A Night at the Tombs, performing Thursday nights at the Bowery Poetry Club. Directed and developed by Tim Cusack for Theatre Askew, this monologue with music features original songs by artists such as Taylor Mac, Jeff Whitty, and Ellen Maddow. Unfortunately, the majority of the tunes do not make much of an impression and Leigh's vocal talents are not always up to the challenges of her material.

The narrative centers on an incident in March 1987, when Leigh was arrested for prostitution and brought to The Tombs (otherwise known as the Manhattan Detention Complex). She sketches in the circumstances that led to this event, including her early struggles with her gender identity, taking up acting, beginning the transition from male to female, and eventually stumbling into a career as a dominatrix in order to fund her sex change.

Leigh forges a strong rapport with her audience, often making eye contact with and/or speaking to individual attendees. She's quick on her feet, dealing with a problematic costume change with style and grace, and even drawing applause for getting an audience volunteer to help her take a drink from her water bottle while she's miming being handcuffed and dragged off to jail.

The songs supplement the narrative in both direct and indirect ways. For example, "Broadway Shooting Star" chronicles her time as a dancer at Show World, a Times Square strip club. The number features lyrics by Whitty, Leigh, and Cusack that flesh out the details, but the music by Super Buddha is derivative and unmemorable. Mac's contribution, "Chase Me," is somewhat apart from the plot, and is done as a dream sequence. It's easily the best song in the score, and has a haunting quality that shows off Leigh's upper register to good effect.

Sadly, other songs in the show come across as more strained, a sense that's enhanced by the performer's pitch problems and -- at one point during the performance I attended -- difficulty with retaining the lyrics to Isam Rum and Matty Pritchard's "Inside Black Mariah." (Admittedly, the performer also seemed to be having some issues with the sound system, and would occasionally call out to say that she could not hear her music.) The least successful number is Gino Paoli's "Il Cielo in una Stanza" which Leigh lip-synchs to her previously recorded vocals in a rather lackluster fashion.

The strength of the piece lies within Leigh's detailed description of her interactions with both police and her fellow inmates. The writer/performer gives a richly complex picture of the way gay men and transgendered individuals are treated following an arrest. But while the conditions were deplorable, Leigh also notes the individual acts of courage and humanity that occurred during her stay in the slammer.