There's more to Beneva Fruitville than dirty jokes and skimpy dresses. Meet the man behind the makeup and host of Social's new Drag Queen Bingo Brunch.
Berry Ayers is trying to remember the first time he dressed in drag. The second time, however, was definitely in a local production of the musical "La Cage aux Folles."
"That's French," he says, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Like the toast."
"Or the kiss," adds his friend and business associate, Laura Daniel Gale.
Ayers bursts into laughter.
"Did you see that?" he says. "My brain went right to food. Maybe that's what's wrong with me."
The two are sitting inside Social on First, the bar and restaurant where they've collaborated to host Drag Queen Bingo Brunch — the latest endeavor to spotlight Ayers' alter ego, Beneva Fruitville, who's become something of a local celebrity since her debut five years ago.
But there's more to Ayers than lipstick and laughs — after performing for 10 years in and around New York City, the actor, director, singer and musical-theater veteran moved to Sarasota in 2004. Since then, he's had his hands in countless local arts endeavors, and he's currently the production manager and director of music at the Players Theatre, where he's directing "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," opening later this month.
He says he's thankful for Sarasota, not only for its arts community, which he quickly fell in love with, but also for helping him find Beneva Fruitville — a character who's had a surprising impact on his life.
- "I never intended to stay in Sarasota. I moved here to be with my mother, who was sick. But the longer I stayed, the more I fell in love with it. I found a close circle of friends here, and it was at a point in my life where that was really important to have."
- "I'd been performing at East Village Cabaret in Lakewood Ranch. I was doing some standup, and I realized I was pretty good at the hosting aspect of it. I knew how to work a crowd. Then I had to be in drag for "La Cage aux Folles," and I decided I should try to combine the two."
- "It's liberating to play a character that's based on yourself but isn't you. And there's something freeing about changing genders. It's almost innately self-deprecating, so I can get away with making fun of other people onstage. Here I am, this big football-player-looking guy, trying to look pretty. So the joke's already on me."
- "I actually have to reshape my body when I'm in character to hide my broad shoulders. I've got hip pads, double butt pads and huge memory-foam boobs. I like to say 'This body is brought to you by Sealy Mattresses.'"
- "My first time as Beneva was filling in for another drag queen at Bingo night. At first, I didn't know quite what to do or say, but I got into the groove. I realized it was just like hosting any other event. I use a lot of observational humor and a lot of improv-based things."
- "I love to get on stage and mess with people. It's all in good spirits. My show is a lot different than other similar acts I've seen. It really is a performance, and it's much less about the actual Bingo."
- "I'm very comfortable in her skin. I know that sounds weird to say, but I've played her enough that I really do feel that way. As the character has evolved, I've grown as a person. I've borrowed from her personality. She's loud and outspoken, and she's really confident about her body. I've always been very conscious of the way I look, but I've been able to borrow some of that confidence. It's different than playing other characters — Beneva is a character that came from within me."