Any well-heeled queen worth her salt knows when to leave the party, and the guys and gals of the annual DQ fundraising show are nothing if not heeled, high heeled that is. Their swan song, Diva Oz Vegas, opens Thu, May 10 at Hart House Theatre, and promises to provide a fabulous epitaph for the grand old girl’s final bow.
This year, local drag amateurs pitch their dainty tent on L Frank Baum’s camp classic, tweaking the characters and relocating the story to that other city that never sleeps.
Plucky heroine Friend Of Dorothy (played by Toronto drag icon Candi Barr) finds herself in a strange mystical land, populated by fantastical creatures in devastating outfits. Inexplicably, the wee tyke wants to leave this Technicolor paradise and make her way back to the drab land she calls home. Along her journey, she encounters a shiny Tin Girl (Jose Arias) longing for a heart of gold, the willowy CherCrow (Mark Williams) searching for career respect and a zaftig Lioness (Hollywood) who just wants to find the all-you-can-eat buffet. Led by the glamourous Glinda (Brad Cormier) and pursued by catty Evillinda (Christian Jeffries) the marvellous misfits mince on down the yellow brick road one last time.
This final production is the brainchild of director/writer Graham Maxwell, now in his fifth year transforming DQ from a drag pageant to a full-blown theatrical experience. “Look at how far we’ve come in the last five years,” Maxwell says. “The cast had to learn to dance, sing live and do dialogue… they’ve been amazing.”
Maxwell’s determined to make DQ’s finale a real extravaganza. He’s been working his cast through numbers that he views as the culmination of their work together over the last four productions. To that end, there is virtually no lip-synch in Diva Oz Vegas, and the production numbers are almost as challenging as any professional musical. In an interesting twist, Maxwell is eschewing the original music for classic diva tunes… and for a surprising reason:
“I can’t stand the movie,” confesses the heretic. “But it’s a great story to tell, so we don’t use any of the actual songs and we take it to Vegas.
“I want to take it out in high style ’cause, after five years in a row, she’s taking her biggest and best final curtain call.”
While he insists this will be his last production, Maxwell doesn’t rule out future installments from emerging baby queens still facing the threat of a disease that has lingered far too long.
“We’ve been able to pass the torch to the next generation so they know what went on in the past,” he says. “Kids are brought up today knowing all about HIV/AIDS, whereas our generation had to be smacked over the head.
“It’s great that we were able to do DQ, but it’s kind of sad to think we had to do it for that particular cause. Who would have thought that, 20 years later, we’d still be looking for a cure? [DQ is] still fun, but, even more than that, it’s mostly a tribute to June because she held on for so long.”
June Callwood, who died earlier this month, was the woman who started it all. It was her call to arms 1986 that brought Toronto’s drag community together for a performance that raised the $35,000 down payment needed by Casey House, the AIDS hospice she founded and named for her deceased son Casey. In spite of declining health due to inoperable cancer, Callwood would make a cameo appearance every year onstage with her “girls,” often dressed as outrageously as the other queens. Her affection for DQ was as obvious as her gratitude for the girls’ support. To date, DQ has raised more than $900,000 for the Casey House’s community programs and hospice care.
Sadly, this will be the first DQ Callwood has ever missed. The beloved activist, author and journalist passed away the night before the interviews for this article were conducted, tingeing the troupe’s usual optimism with sombre reflection.
“She was one of the most compassionate human beings I’ve ever met,” says David Clark aka Candi Barr. “I met her maybe half a dozen times in my life, but after the first time she met me, she knew exactly who I was.
“We had a garden party last year for the DQ Foundation, and she was at the head of the table. I remember asking her to share with us the whole story of how she started Casey House. She told us about her son, and how he died [hit by a drunk driver]. June loved DQ… she was our biggest fan and our biggest supporter. It’s really sad for me that she didn’t live to see this production.”
That regret is echoed by others in the DQ crew, but tempered by admiration of a life well and truly lived.
“It’s difficult to express the gratitude that not only the gay community has, but I think all of the philanthropic community,” says performer Brad Cormier. “She really championed a situation that no one was taking on. She understood the necessity of having this community service for the whole community of Toronto, and that inspired many more hospices around the world.”
Longtime DQ producer Marlene Smith admired Callwood’s hands-on approach to activism.
“I wish all women were as terrific as she was,” says Smith. “June was so wonderfully down-to-earth and sensible, and it was great that she could do all of that work. Having made a name for herself, she was able to use it to do so many good things.”
Despite the grieving evident in a cast that loved her, Callwood’s band of Mary misfits is happy for one last opportunity to give their all in honour of their fairy godmother.
“This becomes a celebration of all the things June loved about DQ,” Maxwell says with a smile. “It’s helping people out, tongue in cheek, with a ton of humour and heaps of glamour.”