The year 2015-2016 was a big year for me, coming to Edinburgh after working in the Middle East for several years. One of the first things I did was visit the Festival Theatre, where I fell in love with modern dance (I hate dancing, so don’t switch off if you are also not a dancer). Although I intend to continue visiting the Festival, I will also be trying out other venues, for modern dance, drama, ballet and opera.
Burgerz by Travis Alabanza
Playing currently at the Traverse Theatre is Travis Alabanza's poignant and comic one-person show, a thought-provoking meditation created out of a jarring personal experience. Back in 2016, Alabanza, a non-binary person of colour, was abused in a London street, with a burger thrown at them by a stranger. The show's series of reflections on what happened is as much to do with the absence of support Alabanza received from those who saw it happen. The show involves Alabanza constructing a hamburger with the support of a volunteer from the audience, the volunteer presumably always white, male and cisgender, with Alabanza able to explore and discuss the issue of privilege.
An electronic failure with the kitchen top added a funny dynamic to this performance – the food blender wouldn't operate, and the hob wouldn't cook the burger. It was, with some irony, the only thing about the show that wasn't electrifying. For having seen Alabanza in a different show this year promoting their book of poetry Before I Step Outside (2019), I wasn't surprised to see them improvise brilliantly around this kitchen malfunction: Alabanza is nothing if not a quick-witted and charismatic force of nature. The volunteer, Fraser, also brought an easy-going cool and his own weirdly convenient experience with preparing burgers that meant they could collaborate humorously to work around the technical difficulties. Indeed, had it not been for the technical crew converging on the kitchen area after the show had ended, I would have thought the broken kitchen part of the show.
More serious was Alabanza's focus on the regular abuse they receive in public spaces, with accounts of unsettling comments and children's laughter, the entrapment of public transport producing particularly traumatic encounters. When a second volunteer was called on to read out a public vow towards the end, the show's most uncomfortable moment arose with Alabanza asking the volunteer to throw the completed burger at them. The volunteer refused. One assumes this would be the case every time, but it would make a fascinating follow-up show to hear Alabanza talk about the varying experiences involving the different volunteers. In a show where the volunteers play so vital a role, there is no question that Burgerz has an edginess to it, with no two shows likely to be the same. Having said that, the very final act of the show is surprisingly powerful and leaves a resonant image. Overall, Burgerz is a very dynamically constructed, creative way of dealing with transgender experience on a day to day basis, melding comedy with tragedy.
It is also a show that leaves you with plenty to consider. As a transgender woman, I'm aware of the anxieties caused in public spaces, but Alabanza's narrative underlines the intensity of being unambiguously between – or outside of – the gender binary, inhabiting a site of striking uncanniness for a binary-conditioned public. To be repeatedly stared at, or recoiled from, regardless of all the charm, intelligence and beauty that Alabanza owns, left me wondering how I could cope. For the truth is, as a trans woman after three years of hormones, sufficiently able to pass and blend in (at least from afar), I don't usually have to cope with such suffering, and am not sure if I could. It is in fact one of the issues concerning trans subjectivity, conformity or liberation, survival or exposure, though of course being trans can be all of these things at different times. As for the show's message, to speak up when seeing the harassment of those guilty only of being different, who can say confidently with their own safety at risk that they would? It's appropriate that I left this show called Burgerz with plenty of food for thought.