revew: Travis Alabanza – Burgerz
written & performed by Travis Alabanza/
dir by Sam Curtis Lindsay/
design Soutra Gilmour/
presented by Hackney Showroom/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
In 2016, a man threw a burger at performance artist, Travis Alabanza, on Waterloo Bridge in broad daylight. They think over a hundred people must have seen. No one did anything.
‘I was called faggot 60 times in public last year. 15 different men tried to follow me home. A woman told her child not to sit next to me on the tube. And I landed in the national papers after being thrown out of a Top Shop Manchester changing room.’
Alabanza has been surviving. And they’ve been working. Last year, I saw them in Jubilee at the Royal Exchange. Since then they’ve been working on this show and I don’t doubt countless other projects. Burgerz comes from an autobiographical place. It frames itself as stemming from that act by that man on that bridge in that public place. Which is important. It’s important to be angry. It’s important to know the autobiographical content of Travis Alabanza’s Burgerz and to be upset by it. But that’s also not enough. And as wearying as the world is it’s never going to change without us. And Alabanza understands that – their show is emotional, it’s moving. And it is also smart, incisive, and critically razor-sharp.
That inciting incident with the burger is artificial within the narrative structure of Burgerz. Alabanza needs their audience to understand that the burger is one among dozens of symptoms of the world they (we) live and move through. It is not a freak incident, but it is a useful point to take, pin and dissect. When Alabanza says ‘burger’, they know what we have imagined. They imagine it too. The burger in our heads is an archetype. And isn’t there a kind of violence in that? In our clinging to category, our need to understand. We need to know what we’re dealing with, need straight answers, sharp edges.
But yknow, the burger doesn’t weep or bleed. It’s a burger.
In her 1979 speech, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, Audre Lorde says,‘Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women… know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ It doesn’t really do to quote Audre Lorde in brief.
Travis Alabanza does not dwell on introspection. I see introspection, when it is protracted, quiet and uncoupled with action, as having a distinctly white, male, 19th century liberal flavour. If we’re busy looking inward, hermetically sealed, then society can carry on around us. When the threat of society against your person is immediate and violent, then that luxury isn’t available. With regards to ‘masters’ tools’, I see introspection in the actions of governments to redefine definitions of words like ‘poverty’ and ‘gender’, in order to eradicate the appearance of inequality. Looking inwards fundamentally facilitates material things carrying on as they are.
Alabanza turns their focus outward.
They source a target from the audience. They specify they must be white, cis and male. When Alabanza invites a man onstage to help them make a burger, they understand the impact of putting a knife in their hand and asking them to help prepare a burger from scratch. And the violence of dissection comes to the fore.
The show becomes a sort of process of diagnosis. Alabanza hasn’t made a burger from scratch before. They need to define the burger. We need to understand what is being made, and what it is being made from. They speak to their male volunteer. They try to be generous, and they are, but at moments they cannot contain their rage against a world which boxes them. Which their volunteer cannot help but represent.
Since Lorde, there has been an amount of movement against category in Queer thought. I see a lot of encouragement these days to view gender as a universal oppression. Though its effects might manifest in unequal material outcomes, we are all born equally subject to its social thrall. The use of recognising its pervasiveness is that we can encourage those with power within a system to use that power well.
It frustrates me to no end to see cis people online explain gender to trans and gender non-conforming people. I don’t speak from within that experience but I’m sure they’ve looked into it before. As a rule, I think it’s generally safe to assume a trans person has done their homework. They tend to have thought quite a bit about gender. And if asking someone to define themselves isn’t distraction tactics I don’t know what are. Introspection is easily cast into a tool of oppression.*
Alabanza is far from distracted. Obsessive, perhaps. To unpick the burger, the act of throwing, to dissect where it comes from, what world it exists in, is an act of extrospection to turn scrutiny away from those who ‘stand outside the circle’, but onto the circle. Because violence is a symptom of the border. The category implies its own enforcement.
We’re all part of those categories. And the pressure of them is choking. ‘I asked you here,’ Alabanza tells their volunteer, ‘but I can still feel your hands on my neck.’
There is a faith in the act of performing Burgerz, though. Travis Alabanza is touring this show. They know that change can come, or they wouldn’t be here. The onus falls to us, to recognise what tools we might have in our hands, and what we are prepared to do with them.
*I do want to be absolutely clear that I think introspection is vital. The master’s tools may not be able to dismantle their house, but before we can move we need to be sure we can navigate our way around the snares set deep in our thinking.