Travis Alabanza’s participatory BURGERZ confronts gendered repression, structural complicity and the way they’ve learnt to effectively process trauma – with piercing writing, an impassioned central performance and a tricksy and intelligent structure.
London-based performance artist Travis Alabanza’s impassioned solo show, BURGERZ, anatomises the synonymity of gender and violence and the nigh-methodical way they’ve learnt to process trauma.
Like much of Bobby Baker’s work (Helen Duff’s terrific Vanity Bites Back springs to mind too), the trans activist, poet and theatre-maker uses on-stage cooking – and the participatory potential of food prep – as a vehicle to talk both about violence and rebuilding. In BURGERZ, we see a cheeseburger come to fruition: the mincing of the beef, slicing of the onion, sizzling of the patty and assembly of the final product. A similar ‘product’ was thrown at Alabanza on Waterloo Bridge around two years ago. The show hinges, more than anything else perhaps, around the utter passivity of the circa-100 witnesses. No one stopped to wipe the mayonaise from Travis’ dress, or even check they were OK.
The on-stage cooking demo forms a smart structural device: the steps necessary to the burger’s completion are highlighted to align with Alabanza’s journey processing the experience (and one assumes, that of other traumas – the incident’s positioned to be anything but an isolated one). It also provides a reason for Travis to require audience ‘help’ – specifically that of a white, cis-gender man they decide (comically cringing to themself).
‘Gender or violence?’ they ask him, pop-quiz style. Before a response is allowed, Alabanza clarifies they’ve grown up to see the words as one and the same. Inseparable, and structurally perpetuated by people like the Waterloo dickhead (who – of course – is just emulating the learnt behaviour of those who came before him). BURGERZ also smartly draws attention to the ‘violence’, or at least risk of it, inherent to cooking itself. The roar of the mincing machine blades, the sharpness of the onion knife, the risk of burning and the foreboding timer that alarms for longer than feels comfortable. Travis establishes violence to be everywhere, the places you don’t notice until it’s specifically (and actively) brought to your attention.
‘Do you feel more nervous here [onstage] than you would outside?’, they ask the participant. He nods quickly, of course, and it’s instantly apparent that Alabanza yearns to say and feel the same. This line hits me the most in BURGERZ – particularly considering the press-night context. Lyn, Time Out and other opinions were in, and the effect of that on Travis (involuntary shaking, almost at one point preventing them from completing a chopping task) was palpable. So the reality, that this stage and environment still constitutes an ‘escape’ and safe-place for Alabanza – compared to the street 20 metres outside – seems nothing short of devastating. It’s as piercing and wrenching a line as any I’ve heard this year.
The line, contrary to how it’s flippantly delivered, also acknowledges Travis knows they’re (somewhat unavoidably) preaching to the choir in this queer-friendly East End arts space. They know, as much as us I think, that those watching the performance aren’t those who need to hear it most; an issue not unique to BURGERZ by any means, but an eternal problem with ‘queer art’ only being programmed and attended by those who’re already (at the very least) allies. That’s why this needs to tour though. It works in Hackney Showroom – a predominantly queer and trans crowd passionately nods along, identifies with every word and has immense respect for Travis for so eloquently articulating how they’ve been (perpetually) made to feel themselves. But one imagines BURGERZ would work even harder for an audience who sit in stony silence, experiencing an education like few others.
Travis manages to establish and sustain a fairly unique relationship with both the isolated participant and remainder of the audience: both trustworthy and kind, but simultaneously explicitly confrontational and hostile. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone quite manage that before – but I like it. I think it works. Intimacy is not the intention here; Hackney Showroom is vast and mic amplification is shunned in favour of them speaking at the same register as in Jubilee (staccato, cold, a raised voice, almost a shout). Despite the piercing content, the delivery always makes you feel somewhat distanced. Never as close to the lived experience as with Bryony Kimmings’ delivery style, for example. I think this is the intention – but I’d, personally, be interested in a moment when the distance feels truly, albeit temporarily, removed.
I’d also be interested in a moment or two, where Travis has the confidence to park the script for a moment and probe the participant on particularly interesting answers. A couple of opportunities were missed on press night when it felt necessary, important and advantageous for them to pick up on some fascinating, perhaps unexpected responses. Gaps were left, and one-liners (usually very amusing) were fired back at the answers. But action eternally pressed forward, almost as if what the participant said really didn’t matter. But perhaps it does, or should, or could.
Those two niggles aside though, BURGERZ is remarkably disciplined performance-making. Meticulously thought-through, deceptively slick and intelligently structured from start-to-finish. You can see a really tight devising strategy which underpins it – it’s eternally clear what Travis wants the audience to leave thinking, feeling and learning. Doing nothing is a choice you make. Nothing is something. An action that makes you just as complicit. I hope the show goes far and wide, and does everything it can to prevent ‘nothing’ from happening on Waterloo Bridge the next time.
NB: this is a review of a Hackney Showroom performance in October 2018.