Picking Berry: Leaving the nest

When I was 17, I couldn’t wait to get out of my house. I had just graduated high school and I was headed to college out of state.

I had traveled a little bit, but this would be a first. The first time I would have only myself to answer to with pure and unadulterated freedom. I could eat ice cream every day, I could stay up all night. I could smoke every cigarette. I could do whatever I wanted and made my own rules.

I had lived 17 years in the same place, with many of the same faces and connections. I was able to build a solid reputation of self as an openly gay leader and I was respected for it. I’d also built a reputation for my talent, playing leading roles and holding my own next to professional actors on stage.

I decided that I needed to leave that comfort for a bigger pond. I was self-aware enough to know that while I was good, really good, I could be better – and being good in a small town was not going to make me better, or take me to another level of skill and solid training. I wanted to experience my dream of Broadway lights, so I leapt off the cliff and I moved nearly a thousand miles away to go to college and be better.

College was hard. I had made it into an incredibly exclusive musical theatre major in a world-renowned, four-year conservatory program, which pretty much guaranteed me a career in musical theater upon graduation. It was basically a triple major – singing, dancing and acting – which put me in class or practice from 8 a.m. ballet to show rehearsal which would often end at 10 p.m. that evening.

Spring Quarter of my senior year was my smallest class credit hour load over my four years in school with a mere 18 credit hours. But it wasn’t Florida, it wasn’t home. I had built a new reputation, sought to define myself as a young adult and became ridiculously focused on my future career and how to maintain my life within the arts and specifically how to get work in musical theatre. Which I did.

National tours, global cruise travel, starring in Off-Broadway shows. I worked and I was living my dream. I saw the country and the world, all while performing; I had made my living as a performer.

I had seen my name in lights on a New York City marquee. I signed autographs on actual Playbills at stage doors after shows and then I would go to the Duplex piano bar to rousing cheers.

The pianist would stop playing their song and invite me to come sing before I could get my coat and scarf off. It was my dream. Then life happened.

Due to a series of circumstances, I came back to Florida. It was meant to be temporary, just until I could get back on my feet. Maybe book a new show in New York. I had picked up a few contracts here and there, in Orlando and then in Sarasota.

I had zero intentions of staying in Sarasota, but this town captured my heart. There was a massive arts community; professional theatres, opera and ballet companies, independent venues for artists to create and make new art. It was an artist’s oasis.

Money and greed have altered the storied beauty of the community in Sarasota, and it is sad that this former commune for the outcasts and others has become the city of unaffordable housing, homelessness and sound ordinances. The charm that people spend money to live in Sarasota has been sold to the highest bidder and the influx of political and religious outrage has dimmed the vibrancy of Sarasota’s streetlamps.

I made a home here in Sarasota for 18 years. It’s the longest place I’ve ever lived, including my childhood home. Florida politics frighten me. As a transgender woman, I am frightened daily of what new law Ron DeSantis will sign that will alter my ability to live and work, to pursue life, liberty and happiness, if you will. So I have decided that it’s time for a change.

Here I am at 46 years old, back on that cliff. I have only myself to answer to. I have pure and unadulterated freedom. I can eat ice cream every day, I can stay up all night. I can smoke every cigarette. I can do whatever I wanted and make my rules – but I am so scared.

Over the past couple of years and now in post-lockdown mode, I literally and figuratively find myself in a transitional state – and transitioning has shown me that it’s time to start a new chapter of my life. So I’m pushing myself out of the cozy nest I’ve made here in Sarasota and moving up North.

So, thank you, Sarasota. Even though I got here when I was almost 30, I grew up here in the last 18 years. I will always be Beneva Fruitville, Sarasota’s hometown girl! Whatever it is you’re afraid to do, be your own Beneva Fruitville and you act like you “own” the entire town – because one day, you just might.

Berry Ayers, aka Beneva Fruitville, is a transgender artist who has starred on stages, national television and in film.

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