After leukemia diagnosis, drag performer Martha Graham Cracker is searching for a stem cell donor

The beloved drag cabaret performer has been diagnosed with leukemia. A South Street block party Wednesday will search for a stem cell donor match.

Drag performer Martha Graham Cracker is seen on stage. (Courtesy of Martha Graham Cracker)

Drag performer Martha Graham Cracker is seen on stage. (Courtesy of Martha Graham Cracker)

For 17 years Martha Graham Cracker has given audiences everything she had in a drag cabaret act that has traveled throughout Philadelphia and beyond, performing regularly at Joe’s Pub in New York, a stint in Las Vegas, and even overseas.

Martha also gave the world an original concept album.

Martha’s creator, Dito van Reigersberg, is now asking for something in return: stem cells.

Van Reigersberg was recently diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The cabaret’s entire future performance schedule through 2023 has been canceled as he undergoes chemotherapy.

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A key part of his recovery is a donation of stem cells to help repair his bone marrow, which can be done through a relatively painless transfusion process. But finding a matching donor can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

To identify that donor, Victor Fiorillo — a piano player and co-founder of the cabaret band, as well as a reporter with Philadelphia magazine — has organized a block party on South Street, on Wednesday evening from 5-8 p.m.

Outside of Bob and Barbara’s bar will be sidewalk stations with hot chocolate and swabbing kits, where people between the ages of 18 and 40 can take a tissue sample from the inside of their cheek and send it off to a lab to test for the Human Leukocyte Antigen.

“The whole idea being that you just swab your own cheek, answer a few questions on your cell phone via a QR code, and then in a matter of — I’m not sure how long, but I would guess weeks — they would find out if you were a match for Dito,” said Fiorillo.

Inside Bob and Barbara’s will be a lineup of musicians onstage who have worked with van Reigersberg/Martha before, including Johnny Showcase, the drag duo Glitter and Garbage, and PJ Brown. The performance will be MC’d by cabaret artist Jess Conda.

Van Riegersberg will not attend, neither as himself nor as Martha. Fiorillo said the chemotherapy has left van Reigersberg “seriously immunocompromised.” He will provide a DJ playlist for the night and will likely address the party via a prerecorded message.

For an event organized less than two weeks beforehand, Fiorillo said the response has been extraordinary.

“We were thinking about this event and we got to get people swabbed. But we should have bands play. And then it’s like, ‘Wait, this is turning into a party? Is that weird?’” Fiorillo said. “The last thing Dito wants is for people to be feeling down and awful about this. He has a lot of hope. So we’re calling it a party with a purpose. We’ll have some great music and some great drinks and reunite with old friends.”

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The event is part of a donor campaign, SWAB4MARTHA, through the donor registry website Be the Match. People do not have to be at the Wednesday evening event to get swabbed; they can have a home testing kit sent to them anytime by texting SWAB4MARTHA to 61474.

Fiorillo said that, as of Monday, more than 235 people have ordered testing kits. He is expecting more than that to “take over” the 1500 block at Bob and Barbara’s.

“Here’s the other important thing to remember: are you a match for somebody?” said Fiorillo. “Obviously we’re trying to cure Dito here, but if it turns out that they have a match for somebody in Arkansas or Montana or California, somebody we’ve never heard of and can cure them, that would be a successful outcome for this evening.”

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