The older I get and the more I look back on my life, the more I see the roads not taken. Maybe I should have gone to law school. Maybe I should have moved to Atlanta. Maybe I should have become a woman.
Yes, you can do that nowadays. You can actually fiddle around with your gender, and either "go all the way"—like that transgendered man, Susan Stanton, who almost became our city manager—or you can just dress the part. I think that’s the approach I’d take. Luckily, I seem to be developing breasts on my own, and it’s gotten to the point where, with the right bra, I would even have a little cleavage.
My feminine role model these days is Beneva Fruitville, the hostess of Drag Queen Bingo at the Golden Apple. Drag Queen Bingo started a few years ago at the former Canvas Café, an upscale restaurant in Towles Court. It attracted so many people, including many of the town’s leading lights, that the neighbors started complaining about the crowds and the Herald-Tribune ran a series of stories about the dispute. After the Canvas café closed, Drag Queen Bingo moved to the Golden Apple, where Beneva and her cohorts, Lindsay Carlton and Tamiami Trails, have been playing to sold-out crowds for over a year now, making their show one of the longest-running in town and a genuine local phenomenon. It is also the most subversive piece of theater Sarasota has ever seen.
Yes, theater. Others may see a drag show, or a bingo game, or a night on the town with the gang from work—hopefully with a designated driver in tow.
But men getting dressed up as women and telling hard but hilarious truths about society is the very essence of theater. It’s how theater started. Aristotle used to do drag, and from all reports he was pretty good.
Beneva’s show has one of the most brilliant opening lines I’ve ever heard. Shakespeare would have been proud.
Beneva struts on stage, looking glamorous but cheap in a black dress that highlights her creamy skin and enormous linebacker shoulders, and fixes her gimlet eye on the cheering audience. "Hello, whores!" she bellows. "How
the *&%$ are you?" With that one line she establishes everything you need to know: For tonight, anyway, you’re part of her disreputable pack of friends and can do just about anything you want. Any sort of middle-class pretensions about good behavior will not be tolerated. We’re in a new world where anything goes.
Beneva is everything Sarasota is afraid of—and fascinated by. She’s vulgar, barely out of the trailer park, sexually voracious, a showoff and a terrible influence on youth. No wonder her biggest fans are Catholic schoolgirls. She insults minorities to their faces, she brings men up on stage and makes them take their shirts off, she cavorts through the audience, lip-synching Lady Gaga and accepting dollar bills with her teeth while she "motorboats" the more staid clientele. All the while she insists she is a "good Christian woman." And to prove it, she does her trademark "jump splits for Jesus."
Somewhere in all this a bingo game is taking place, but even this goes way over the top. Every time an O number is called, the audience must raise their arms to form a big circle. If they don’t they are singled out and humiliated.
And when O 69 is called—a sacred moment in Drag Queen Bingo—the waitstaff rushes in with free Jello shots for everyone.
Once the show is over and Beneva, loaded down with dollar bills, heads backstage to take off her make-up, she turns into Berry Ayers, a surprisingly mild-mannered local actor who is her creator and alter ego. A staple at many Golden Apple productions—as both an actor and musician—he got his start in drag during a production of La Cage aux Folles. "I put on a wig and I realized I was pretty," he recalls. He was also pretty funny. A brash humor took over. He discovered he had a gift for reading an audience and knowing just how far to go. Particularly with the straight men in the audience. "They’re usually dragged here by their girlfriends, no pun intended," he says. "But many of them are attracted to Beneva. Things can get very interesting."
Berry gets the unusual spelling of his first name from his grandfather, a Cherokee Indian. He was raised by his mother and her female partner, which certainly put him ahead of the times. "I was very lucky," he says. "They let me try anything. I learned there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to sexuality."
For all its vulgarity—and believe me, it is vulgar—Drag Queen Bingo has a hometown, family side to it. Berry’s mother often attends, as does Tamiami’s mother, Ruth Berkel (who also happens to be the reigning Mrs. Senior Puerto Rico and wife of former mayor Elmer Berkel). And Lindsay Carlton’s parents come to virtually every performance and bring the neighbors. (By the way, if I seem to be slighting the contributions of Tamiami and Lindsay—which Berry would be the first to admit are substantial—I am kind of doing it on purpose. By stoking jealousy and resentment, I’m hoping to provoke a drag queen cat fight onstage. What heaven that would be!)
What’s next for Berry and Beneva? There’s a TV show in the works, part reality and part Oprah. And they recently did a one-woman show at the Golden Apple called Inter-sex-tion, about Berry’s life, which was both sharp and touching. Drag Queen Bingo, though, is still red-hot. It’s every Friday night at the Golden Apple. Admission is just $5 and there’s good bar food available. The coconut shrimp are my favorite. The bar itself seems to be doing very good business. Be sure and bring a stack of dollar bills to tip the performers. And look for Eartha, the sad-faced drag queen selling tickets for the 50-50 raffle. By day Eartha is a chaplain at Hospice. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again—what a strange and wonderful town we live in.