Travis Alabanza on Burgerz
Performance artist and poet Travis Alabanza speaks to the Skinny about the importance of creating a trans theatrical canon, and the stage as a safe(r) space to explore identity
With a deluge of performers flooding every last performance space during Edinburgh's Fringe, it can be hard to work out what, exactly, is worth your time. The multicoloured flyers strewn across the pavements all claim to be the ticket to the next hottest thing but, more often than not, the fantasy — and hyperbolic pull quotes — fails to deliver. Even the most optimistic among us can't help but feel a bit jaded by the hollow promises of festival advertising, making it all the more gratifying when we stumble across a show that actually delivers on the hype. Burgerz, by performance artist and poet Travis Alabanza, is one such show.
Fresh off a stint showing in Berlin after debuting in London in 2018, it's a vital piece of theatre interrogating the issue of rising transphobic abuse from Alabanza's own experience. However, it also flips the script to turn the attention to the audience's own potential complicity in this phenomenon. In this way, it creates an avenue to examine the role of cis complacency and lack of empathy towards trans individuals in allowing this violence — in both its physical and systemic forms — to continue unchecked. In preparation for Burgerz' Edinburgh run at the Traverse Theatre, Alabanza speaks about the importance of creating a trans theatrical canon, the stage as a safe(r) space to explore identity and the power of theatre to intervene in public opinion.
“For me, I didn't want to create a show about my identity that stopped and started with me,” says Alabanza, speaking across the phone from Berlin. “We've got quite comfortable with theatre watching marginalised and oppressed people go on stage and say ‘here is my story here is my pain, now feel empathy.'” They didn't want to make a show that isolated them in their trauma while allowing cis audiences to ignore the role they play in creating it. “Sometimes we put so much pressure on marginalised people to come up with all the answers to our questions and instead I just wanted to create a show that was like, ‘this issue of transphobia and trans attacks and trans hate crime is actually not about me, it's about all of you.'”
As the (overused) saying goes, 'the personal is political' and, as much as Burgerz is decidedly not a show that starts and ends with Alabanza, their decision to perform it is a personal one. “I think that a lot of trans people and marginalised people go on the stage and perform because we're already doing a performance to stay safe.” It makes sense, then, that it's when they're under the theatre lights that Alabanza feels their most authentic. “When I go onstage I'm the most honest version of myself. I'm the self that I have to hide in public.”
The kind of cultural work that Alabanza is engaged in directly addresses this toxic context of a discrimination that makes trans and gender-non-conforming individuals afraid to express themselves in the public space, forcing them into perpetual vigilance at the threat of attack or harassment. At such a time, Alabanza knows that theatre has a particularly important role to play in amplifying the trans experience. “In the UK we've had such a year of trans violence. Recently the BBC announced an 81 percent increase in trans hate crime just from last year.
"When we're dealing with those statistics we need trans theatre to be loud, bold and present. It's not a moment for us to be like; ‘maybe we've had enough of our identity work.' Maybe some identities have but trans people are being beaten up; it's urgent. I don't know how to write letters as well or write amazing articles as well but what I do know is how to make performance, and that's where this show kind of comes from.”
Not only does Alabanza's show deal with trans identity and the hatred that has been allowed to manifest against trans and non-binary people, it also deals with their intersecting Black identity. Rates of violence and discrimination against trans people of colour (particularly women and non-binary femmes) in various parts of the world, like the US, are higher than against their white counterparts due to the ways that transphobia is compounded by racism and misogyny. As Alabanza explains; “I don't really know how to make work about gender that isn't also about my race.”
In addition to addressing the multifaceted discrimination that trans people of colour face, the show also seeks to combat the persistent erasure that they are subjected to. Where so much of the LGBTQIA+ community has been complicit in wider society's attempts to invisibilise people of colour through the white-washing of the Stonewall narrative or the lack of recognition that queer culture goes beyond white queer culture – Burgerz undertakes important work in addressing this and affirming QTPOC identity throughout the decades. “We have to go back in order to go forward because so much of history has erased the fact that Black and Brown people have been trans and gender non-conforming for lots of years.”
The ways that trans people of colour have been overlooked and excluded is also apparent within the theatre world which poses problems regarding the way that Burgerz has been classified by critics unaccustomed with what to do with a multifaceted show. “It's like where is our canon of trans theatre, full stop. But also where is our canon of trans theatre that's not white?” Continuing, they explain that; “When you're on a nexus of making both Black and trans theatre it's really hard to find where your people are because you can feel ignored by those lists that are like ‘Top 5 Black Shows To See.' [Journalists] are not really seeing a trans show by a Black person as being Black as well, and then you kind of get left out of the queer show [coverage] as well.”
Burgerz will hopefully reach a more diverse audience than the sea of white faces which make up the Fringe's typical audience due to collaboration with projects Fringe of Colour and the Black Ticket Project, who are teaming up to provide free tickets to young trans people of colour. However, Alabanza notes that while Burgerz might be particularly affirming for trans people of colour or other QTPOC, it is also an important show for the cis, white bystanders who too often think that racism and transphobia have nothing to do with them. “This show is not just for my community, it's also talking to lots of the people who are silent. An all white audience might be hard and they might not get all of the references but they'll also get a lot of the show pointed at them.”
In fact, getting this kind of audience through the door is also what will help further Burgerz' message. “When do I ever get white, cisgender, upper class people around me? They're not around me in my every day life. I grew up on a council estate that was predominantly Black and Brown and I don't have many of those people in my day to day interactions,” they say.
“Here I've got an hour where I've got a mix of people I wouldn't normally speak to. I've got an hour to change their minds and I've got an hour to force some action onto them.”
Burgerz, Traverse Theatre (Traverse 2), 1-25 Aug (not 5, 12, 19), various times, £5-£21