Copyright Beneva Fruitville. All rights reserved.
Picking Berry: All My World was a StageBY : BENEVA FRUITVILLE
JANUARY 30, 2020
I love musicals. In fact, musical theater has been my hobby and lifelong career, a path I chose after I saw the musical “A Chorus Line” at 13 years old. In that one evening of music, dance, comedy and drama, I learned that performing was not only a viable career – but one that I, Berry Ayers, absolutely had to have.
I grew up in church and sang my first solo at the age of four with dreams of becoming the next Sandy Patti. That “Chorus Line” performance still hung in my memory like the first time I saw Dorothy step out into the colorful world of Oz, however; there were people on that stage talking about abuse, sex, hurt, anger, power and ultimately, love.
My life went from Sandi Patti to Patti Lupone, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. I studied, worked hard, went to a performing arts high school and I walked out of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music with an agent and a career. Performances Off-Broadway, in national tours, on cruise ships and in regional theater followed.
At first, the work I was getting was in the ensemble; the townsfolk in River City or the dancing waiters at the Harmonia Gardens. As a highly trained and very serious actor, when I was dancing on the “West Side Story” fire escapes of New York City, I was asked to determine who my character was, what his home life was like and what he wanted. Acting meant that you go on stage and become someone else. I didn’t have to be me; I could pick whoever I wanted to be.
At the age of nine, I was diagnosed with Manic Depressive Disorder with Suicidal Ideations. Other diagnoses through the years have been Bipolar Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Severe Depression, PTSD, Anorexia, Bulimia and Body Dysmorphia. I am also an addict. Being me, all the time, was not easy. Musical theater allowed me to be whoever I wanted to be in my bedroom while “I Dreamed A Dream” onstage.
As my career progressed, I started making a name for myself and was able to pick the roles I wanted. It was about this time I was picked to perform in an AIDS benefit in drag, something I had only done onstage in a musical. I was also asked to pick a name for this performance.
At the time, I was hired for the musical “Chicago” in Sarasota. The rehearsals were at a dance studio located at the intersection of Beneva and Fruitville Roads. Upon hearing that, I said “Beneva Fruitville … that sounds like a drag name!” My friends laughed and I suddenly had a new nickname. Beneva Fruitville it was!
Drag opened so many doors for me, beginning with guest performance spots. Within six months, I was hosting my own show. I have since created the longest-running theatrical production in Sarasota and occasionally co-host a daytime talk show for our ABC affiliate. It has also been wonderful having a modicum of notoriety, something I dreamed about when I first sang that Sandy Patti song in church so many years ago.
Somewhere in the middle of this journey, something changed in me. For so long I had chosen to be someone else – but intrinsically, without the Beneva persona of being sexy, sassy and salacious – who was Berry?
I tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I played with the concept of gender fluidity. I also tried non-prescribed and illegal hormones. Things got very dark, suicidal dark, and I resumed therapy. I discovered that I was experiencing something called dysphoria, adding it to my previously stated list of diagnoses.
In any case, I had finally found my true self: a 44-year-old, trans woman who has never felt more alive and more comfortable in her own skin than being able to say those words. So, what does a girl do when she realizes that she needs to put her mental health first? Quit her day job and make drag a full-time career!
I clearly didn’t think that out thoroughly. Jobs give health insurance. No health insurance, no therapist. A little lost and wondering what my next step would be, friends told me to call Metro Inclusive Health. I made an appointment for an assessment and in December, I met my new therapist.
She talked me through the basics of Metro’s services, treated me with respect and care and we are proceeding at my pace. Now, let me tell you, I want my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and I want it now! I also want my boobies and I want them now! But, I am literally just beginning my journey; just beginning the process of getting my letter of support so that I can begin HRT.
In order to get approved for HRT you must have a letter from your therapist explaining your dysphoria and we are working on that process now. Going through my past, defining examples of my specific dysphoria and notating them. Metro, praise God, also works on a sliding fee schedule – so what you pay is based on what you make.
So this is my journey. I choose to be open, honest and transparent because for the first time I can pick who I really am – and this time, I am Picking Berry.
Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, has been honored for her theatrical roles and volunteerism. She has performed onstage from New York to Fiji and can be seen on screen via Amazon Prime and Sarasota’s Suncoast View.