Gender roles

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ONE OF THESE GIRLS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER | Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., right, plays his character Frenchie sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a cross-dresser, in Dallas Theater Center’s wild and sexed-up production of ‘Cabaret.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

Life is a drag-aret, old chum — at least it is for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., who gets all girlie for his role in DTC’s sexy, edgy ‘Cabaret’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Getting cast in Cabaret was a plum gig for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr. Since moving to Dallas from his native Abilene in 2007, Cunningham has been performing around town in shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Caroline, or Change. But he had taken off nearly a year before he auditioned for the Dallas Theater Center’s spring musical.

So when he got that call that he’d been cast as Frenchie, “one of the dancers in the Kit Kat Klub,” he was thrilled to be making his DTC debut.

Then he showed up for the first costume fitting,

“That’s when I found out I would be playing a girl,” he says.

Yes, he would be in the ensemble — only not as a Kit Kat boy as he had assumed, but playing one of the female chorines.

That was a surprise for sure, but wasn’t such a big deal for Cunningham: Since 2004, he’s performed drag under the name Jada Fox at clubs around North Texas, including Station 4, the Drama Room and the Rainbow Lounge. No, it was really when he saw his costume that he had his first big gulp! moment — there simply wasn’t that much of it.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit,” he says. “When I do drag, I wear pads to give myself the physique of a girl. Without them, I have the body of a boy.”

Being clad only in a bra, lace panties and sheer stockings didn’t give him much to play with — or hide behind.

As with drag, maintaining the illusion of femininity requires a man to, ummm, “tuck.” That’s not so hard when donning an evening gown for a 20-minute drag show; it’s quite another for a two-hour musical that requires high kicks.

Let’s just say Cunningham has to work harder than anyone else onstage not to let his Pride flag wave too proudly.

“I have to worry about my junk,” he says frankly. “Something could very well pop out. You just have to make it work.” (So far during previews, that hasn’t happened, though it has occurred backstage at unexpected moments.) He also has to sing an octave above his normal range. All in all, it gives new meaning to Faith Whittlesey’s dictum, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did — only backwards and in heels.”

Performing as a female impersonator certainly prepared Cunningham for this role. As with acting, drag requires the creation of a character, and Jada Fox has been described as “a black Barbie doll — I’m not the bitchy queen, it’s just not me.” (When pressed, he compares his persona to Sahara Davenport, the Season 2 contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

It’s all part-and-parcel with the concept of the show, a sexed-up, wildly racy updating of “the divinely decadent Sally Bowles,” a British showgirl living in Weimar Germany when everyone was sleeping around with everyone else — male, female … even Nazi. Joel Ferrell directs and choreographs, turning the floor of the Wyly Theatre into a real cabaret with some café-table seating. That gives Cunningham the opportunity to interact with the audience in ways neither he nor most of the attendees are quite used to.

“There’s definitely a game of ‘spot-the-boy,’” he says. “I can see the audience, especially the women, trying to figure me out, It’s kind of funny. It gives me a bit to play with. I’m not trying to freak anyone out, but there was this number [at a preview] where I was looking at these guys and they refused to look at me.” He took it as a challenge.

It becomes easier to spot-the-boy during Act 2, where Cabaret ventures toward Zumanity territory with explicit nudity — none of which bothers Cunningham.

“I personally don’t care — I’m very comfortable with my body,” he says. (At 25, he says he eats all he wants to and only occasionally works out and yet still maintains his lean physique.)

So, is Frenchie a real girl, or just a cross-dressing guy living the gay life in decadent interregnum Berlin? Even Cunningham’s not sure.

“They never told me exactly what they wanted,” he says. “It’s a choice I get to make. I kind of play with it — sometimes I’m really a girl and sometimes not.”

Unless, of course, he pops out of his costume during a performance. At that point, the audience pretty much gets to make the decision for him.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

An island calling

Faded but still fierce, Catalina oozes tropical romance just off SoCal’s coast

NICK VIVION  | Contributing Travel Writer
gaytravel.com

“Are there more resident bald eagles on the island or resident gays?” my traveling companion asks a gay resident of Catalina, who works for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which controls 88 percent of the land here.

“Definitely gays,” exclaims Shaun, the knowledgeable biologist tasked with removing invasive plant species on the island.

It’s a fair question. There are a whopping 22 bald eagles living on the island, and there can’t be too many gays on a spit of land only 55 miles around. Catalina Island isn’t the first place that comes to mind as a gay destination, but this unassuming vibe is one of its best traits. It’s a mixed crowd, allowing you to mold your experience.

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RAINBOW’S END | Small and still elegant, Catalina Island is a haven for wildlife — and gay adventurers.

“I don’t think many gay people realize that other gays come to the island often. It is gay-friendly, relaxed and comfortable,” Shaun elaborates after the laughter simmers down.

Catalina was originally developed by the Banning Brothers during the period of prosperity in the late 19th century that brought the newly moneyed set to the island in droves, ready to party politely in their modest, fully-clothed bathing gear.

As Hollywood developed, so did interest in Catalina. It quickly became a glamorous getaway for the Tinseltown set, and its appeal was accelerated after chewing gum czar William Wrigley bought the island in 1919, bringing his Chicago Cubs here for spring training until the 1950s.

While the glamour has faded somewhat, Catalina’s historical tapestry has golden gay threads woven throughout, and the feeling permeates your stay on the island. And there’s still a fascinating history magnifying the romantic aura of the island. This place has a distinct whimsical appeal that combines with top class amenities and attractions to become a perfect gay getaway for those in Southern California and beyond.

Catalina Island has a growing and well-deserved reputation as an adventure destination. For those who crave an escape from the concrete gridlock of Southern California, there is not a single stoplight on the entire isle.

It has its modern perks. The Eco Zip Line is the newest activity on the island, and it’s pure joy. Strong winds on add a wholly unexpected dimension to the experience of flying down steel cables 300 feet above the Descanso Canyon floor.

The numerous outdoor experiences make for a soul rejuvenating weekend escape. In a two-day visit, we explored a botanical garden, avoided rattlesnakes as we hiked a portion of the 37.2 mile Trans-Catalina Trail, checked out one of three scenic and remote campgrounds, parasailed high above the ocean and went zip lining from mountain to sea.

There is also an incredible Marine Preserve called the Lover’s Cove, calm and ideal for snorkeling amongst the scintillating orange Garibaldi and spotted opaleyes. Several extensive wrecks are accessible for walk-in SCUBA diving on Casino Point, and you can tackle the challenging trails on mountain bike or by foot. Last but not least, exploring the island’s perimeter in an ocean kayak is an unparalleled way to get out onto the legendary crystal-clear waters along the Catalina Coast.

Catalina Island has been a romantic’s playground from the beginning of its development in the Gay Nineties. Dozens of movies have bestowed romantic allure, and the Four Preps’ 1958 hit song “26 Miles” extolled the virtues of its romantic side, which is now a perfect soundtrack to the quaint, timeless aesthetic on the island.

Development is strictly limited, so the architecture remains consistent. There is a 15-year waiting list for conventional cars on the island, so personalized golf carts dominate transportation. Walking’s not bad, either. Take a leisurely stroll from Avalon around the point past the stunning, 12-story Art Deco Casino, and onwards to the tidepools past Descanso Beach. Then end the night sitting by the blazing fire pit at the pleasantly updated Pavillion Hotel, sipping pinot noir and nibbling on goat cheese as the sun sets somewhere beyond the hills, and the clouds in Avalon harbor turn a fierce purple. Romance, indeed.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

The gay ski week fraternity adds its newest member: Shoot the Butte

amedia-photosARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Aspen has been holding a Gay Ski Week so long, the Village People weren’t considered a nostalgia act yet — they were still on the pop charts. But everyone has to start somewhere. Which is how the newest entry in the gay ski week fraternity got going.

Shoot the Butte, which runs March 19 through March 26 in Crested Butte, Colo., isn’t starting small, either. The inaugural week-long event, designed for queer skiers and snowboarders, serves both as one big party and as a fundraiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. In fact, among the scheduled events is a staged reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, the acclaimed play about the murder of Shepard in neighboring Wyoming more than 11 years ago.

Among the other activities are daily “hookups” (meet-ups with other skiers), an apres-ski tubing party, “Martini Monday,” the Splash Pool Party (yes, you can swim in the mountains if you know where to go for the heated lanes) and a closing-night party with O.A.R. and DJ Logic. And if you book for at least four nights in the host resort, you get a complimentary “GayCard” that admits you into all the authorized events. There’s nothing like turning a little downhill fun into a worthwhile benefit.

For more information, visit MatthewShepardGaySkiWeek.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas