Dhakeria Cunningham is happy being a big fish in a little pond — for now.
At 25, she’s got a lot going for her in Sarasota.
There’s her relationship with college sweetheart Will Little, a graduate of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, with whom Cunningham recently starred in the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
There’s her daughter, Zhaniya, a precocious 1-year-old who already exhibits her father’s dramatic flair and her mother’s rhythm. There’s her starring role in this month’s WBTT play, “Blackbird: The Josephine Baker Story,” a rags-to-riches, flapper-era tale of jazz sensation Josephine Baker, with whom Cunningham has identified for years.
And, then, there’s her 45-minute one-woman show, “Naked,” a poignant piece of performance art that grew out of a series of poems she penned about motherhood, love, heartbreak and everything in between.
A tale of self-discovery mixed with dance and spoken word, the one-woman play is the first theatrical production to come out of Little Big League LLC, the entertainment company Cunningham and Little conceived their freshman year at Howard University.
It premiered last fall at Home Resource and spawned a book of poetry and most recently a documentary, which the couple filmed this winter using money raised on Kickstarter.com, an online fundraising tool.
“The documentary focuses on the ‘Naked’ experience,” Cunningham says. “It’s about two young African-American entrepreneurs doing what they love to uplift and inspire people.”
In just two weeks on Kickstarter, the project raised $3,000, cementing the couple’s decision to remain in Sarasota, where they’ve received an outpouring of support from the community’s performing-arts industry.
“The next step is to get a home,” says Cunningham, a South Carolina native.
When she moved in 2008 to Sarasota, it was to support Little during his three years at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory.
She never expected to stay.
She got a job selling clothes at the mall, took esthetician classes at Florida College of Natural Health and watched Little on stage at the Asolo Rep.
Not one to lay low at the beach, Cunningham says she was eager to “make a break” in Sarasota’s arts scene.
She got it when she gave birth to the couple’s daughter during Little’s final year.
“I remember Will saying to me, ‘OK. You followed me here. You had our baby. Now it’s time to do your thing,’” Cunningham says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do! Look at me. I’m a fat little mama!’”
Coming clean with her insecurities in a solo show proved cathartic for the actress.
“At first, I called the show ‘Nude,’” says Cunningham, who also performs with Fuzión Dance Artists. “But people told me ‘Naked’ made more sense. They’re right. I’m out there baring my soul, revealing myself. ‘Nude’ is limiting. ‘Naked’ is more open to interpretation.”
Interpretation is Cunningham’s strong suit. It’s what she’s been doing for months in preparation for her role in “Blackbird.”
Dressed in wide-legged jeans and a loose top, it’s easy to see why the actress was cast as Baker, who during her long and storied career as a performer in Paris, served as a muse for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Christian Dior and Picasso.
Small, animated and athletic, Cunningham not only looks like the loose-limbed dancer, she moves like her, too.
At a luncheon last month benefiting the Women’s Resource Center, Cunningham’s rendition of Baker’s signature “Banana Dance” loosened up a crowd of society doyennes gathered at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.
The reaction was exactly what longtime WBTT board member Eva Slane had hoped for when she first started pushing the troupe to perform the play eight years ago.
“I try not to interfere with casting,” says Slane, who had seen Cunningham perform her one-woman show last year at Home Resource. “I was rooting for Dhakeria.”
The actress is aware of the comparisons.
As a theater student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Cunningham had a habit of walking around campus dressed like an ingénue from the Harlem Renaissance: gaucho pants, pin curls, drop-waist dresses, devil-may-care attitude.
Other than having to take a crash course in speaking French, the actress is ripe for the role. All her life she’s been told she’s got a Josephine Baker air about her, a certain je ne sais quoi.
“I do feel a lot of pressure,” Cunningham says of the role. “This is my biggest show yet. People are expecting a lot from me. Most people only know the 1920s-version Josephine, the naked dancing girl in Paris. Not a lot of people know her frugal beginnings, which is where I come in. I have to tell her story as authentic and honest as possible.”
The stakes are also high for WBTT.
The show’s Tony-nominated playwright, Sherman Yellen (“The Rothschilds”), will be in the audience on opening night, in addition to some of the show’s original Chicago producers.
According to the troupe’s website, all but three shows in the production’s four-week run have sold out.
If Cunningham is nervous, it doesn’t show. Apparently, she and Baker also have this in common: fearlessness.
“Josephine Baker is one of my dream roles,” Cunningham says. “She used her talents to make a change. She would perform for crowds of soldiers during World War II, and she wouldn’t step off the stage till the crowd looked like salt and pepper. That’s what she used to call it when the black and white soldiers mixed. She said they looked like salt and pepper. I love that analogy.”
IF YOU GO
“Blackbird: The Story of Josephine Baker” runs now through May 13, at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. For tickets, call 366-1505 or visit wbttroupe.org.
DID YOU KNOW?
Josephine Baker was a spy for the French resistance during World War II. Nazi guards were so taken with the charming song-and-dance star that they never gave her trouble when she slipped past enemy lines smuggling secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music. For this service, Baker was awarded the French Legion of Honor.