Imagine attempting to explain something inexplicable to your close-knit, strong-headed family. Imagine that you're bright, and well-spoken, and yet, the words are escaping you — you can't pin it down, this feeling. Your family is staring at you. They ask, "Why are you acting weird, what's up, what's going on?" Imagine your confusion and frustration and fear. Imagine that your life depends on this converation. Imagine you're eight years old.
"It's a snapshot of my life," says 23-year-old Charleston native Vanity Reid Deterville, formerly Devario Deterville, of her original play, Sugar in the Grits, which will premiere this Saturday during the closing weekend of MOJA. "How does a black trans woman fit into Charleston history?" Deterville asks, answering her own question in the same breath, "In the mainstream narrative, she doesn't fit. It's like haphazardly throwing sugar in the grits."
Deterville says she's eased into her current identity "... from bisexual to effeminate gay male, to makeup artist, and now, I'm an openly trans woman, which I wished [I would've become] many years ago."
Growing up in a West Caribbean Christian Southern family, Deterville, who is part of Charleston's Gullah Geechee community, says it's been difficult to navigate expressing herself. For those whom Deterville has befriended, though, the navigation was never a question.
Elder Carlie Towne has been producing plays for MOJA for the past two decades: "This year I wanted to do something more innovative. I wanted to have a story that resonated among everyone, but still had Gullah Geechee aspects," says Towne. "Vanity is Gullah Geechee and trans and ... people lack understanding. But we have a compelling cast of local actors who are all Gullah Geechee. They want to espouse the story as well. I was looking to pass the mantle to the next generation when we Elders make our transition; we don't need to take the knowledge with us, I believe it [Sugar in the Grits] is going to make some big differences in how we see people and how we address people in Charleston, in the community."
Towne says she met Deterville within the last two years through We Are Family's executive director Melissa Moore. "I didn't know her story would be the way it is," says Towne. "I thought it would be poetry, or dance, but it's these dynamic events that molded her [Vanity] into the person she is."
Sugar in the Grits is Deterville's story, no embellishments, no glossing over, from the time she was eight to the present day. "For people who feel like they can't tell this story ... I want to turn struggle into art," says Deterville. "We all have hurt and pain ... I want to tell the many stories that have always been in Charleston for trans women of color. I'm nervous, and anxious, and scared." Because Deterville is a poet, a playwright, and Sugar in the Grits' main actor, she has to balance telling a good story, a true story, while being completely immersed in the narrative. "It can be therapeutic," says Deterville. "But triggering at the same time. Such depth of memory can be jarring, but it needs to happen."
While the play is only approximately 45 minutes, it's telling in its brevity. In the first act, a young Vanity (then Devario) comes home from school and greets his paternal grandmother. He says, "I'm tired of being teased 'cause my voice is so high, and I don't know why it's a problem if most of my friends are girls." The trials and tribulations of youth, weighing heavier and heavier as confusion sets in. We've all asked, "Who am I?" but what if you truly didn't know, or, you did know, and you couldn't face it to save your life?
Deterville's grandmother tells him: "Who cares, you have to live for you." Deterville asks, plaintively, desperately, "Why can't I be a girl?" His grandmother, compassionate and kind, tells the young Deterville that she sees no problem, but, "better not tell your papa [grandfather]."
Deterville says that after her grandmother passed away, it was hard to reconcile her feelings with her identity. "There was a dependency on substances," says Deterville. "And there was a period of homelessness, a point of family fracturing, and a loss of faith."
Regina Mocha, a friend of Deterville's and fellow poet, says she knew Deterville was gearing up for something earlier this year. "It felt like there was something getting ready to happen," says Mocha, after hearing Deterville's poetry. Her last poem, Mocha says, really stuck with her. "I thought, 'What are you running from?'"
Mocha says that when Deterville transitioned it was like "drinking coffee one day, tea the next, when there's love there's love, it doesn't matter how you come to me." When Deterville changed how she dressed, how she presented herelf, her name, for Mocha, it all "became part of the narrative." Mocha's two daughters immediately accepted Deterville's transition. "We need to learn from them — I tell people all the time, it's what you instill in these kids, they're not born with not accepting. The more we present it to be people, show the struggles behind it, the more empathetic people will become. We all struggle, and they'll see it's just another struggle."