Burgerz review: being black, trans and visible
28 Oct 2018
Burgerz by Elise Rose
The link between burgers and Travis Alabanza was slightly lost on me prior to seeing their new play at Hackney Showroom. Written and performed by the splendid Alabanza, Burgerz explores burgers quite literally and as an analogy for gender, binaries and identity. The play begins with Travis explaining that a burger was thrown at them at a station and nobody did anything about it – and so the burger becomes an emblem shaping the whole narrative of the play as a way to explain what it’s like being trans in this society beyond transitioning.
The set becomes this magical box spilling out with smaller boxes before becoming a QVC-style multipurpose set (kitchen included) with Travis as our reluctant domestic host tasked with making a burger from scratch. Questions are flung about, like “what if your burger changes into something different? What if you find out halfway through cooking that actually you don’t like burgers you’re more of a hotdog person? Or why must you choose a burger box before you’ve even made the burger?” It quickly becomes quite obvious that we aren’t just talking about fast food here.
“The intersection of race and gender truly felt and explored throughout. Travis never let us forget that we were looking through the lens of a black trans person”
The play had moments of hilarious awkwardness and Travis let us dangle in it. They gave us space to laugh and get comfortable in their humour and playful colourful aesthetic before suddenly yanking the rug from under our feet when they dug deep into what it really feels like existing loudly in a world that violently tries to silence them.
The intersection of race and gender truly felt and explored throughout. Travis never let us forget that we were looking through the lens of a black trans person. Often, conversations about gender don’t always pick up on race and how there are many black people who live outside of the binary and are constantly misgendered. Race will always inform gender and the two intersections intertwine constantly for the duration of the play which felt so important. Burgerz makes it known that the two can’t be separated. This was perfectly explored in the powerful moment when Travis asked a cis white man from the audience, “how do you know you’re a man?” And he paused and really thought about it like it was the first time he’d been asked to explain his existence. It spoke volumes.
We were taken into the galaxy with serialist prose and in the next breath, flung back into humorous chatter about fast food. Much like the set, which started out as a large unassuming box, we soon find out there is so much more inside and so many elements that make a person who they are. Travis takes us on a journey. We learn about the history of trans and non-binary people and how they’re respected and adored throughout so many cultures existing outside of the west like the Hijra community in South Asia. Being trans isn’t new or a trend or an idea; people’s existences aren’t up for debate.
“We were taken into the galaxy with serialist prose and in the next breath, flung back into humorous chatter about fast food”
Travis not only charmed us as an audience and made us feel so safe and understood, but in a drop, they would shake up everything and illustrate what their lived experiences are really like: what it feels like to be afraid to go outside, to be verbally and physically abused for just existing. At times it was hard to hear but it felt extremely necessary. Travis even recalled the aftermath of what happened at Topshop when they were refused entry into their changing rooms and how the media viciously treated them and misgendered them. At points, you couldn’t tell if Travis was acting or genuinely just speaking to us. It felt real – both charming and heartbreaking.
Beyond the play, Hackney Showroom felt like a safe space. The toilets were gender neutral, everyone stayed after and mingled, nobody assumed my gender. It was a whole new, refreshing theatre experience for me. Burgerz went further than the stage to become an archive of stories. Alongside the play, there was an exhibition showing items of clothing from trans and non-binary people and how these outfits made them feel. It made the experience that much more personal.
Burgerz has come out shortly after the call to reform the outdated Gender Reformation Act and in a time when Donald Trump is literally trying to redefine gender, this play feels so needed. It was a reminder that whilst cis people debate about trans people in the media, we’re forgetting humanity. The media especially has a large part to play in this. We (cis people) must stop speaking as if trans people are theories or ideologies or political agendas because in doing so, we’re dehumanising them. Burgerz reminds us that we’re talking about real lived experiences here.
This play really drummed in that we can’t just sit, watch, listen and nod along: we really have to be proactive. Travis reminds us that doing nothing, staying quiet and turning away is ultimately dangerous. We are complicit in our silence and that in itself is just as great of an act of violence as throwing a burger at a stranger.