'Damn, I'm good at this!' Is Travis Alabanza the future of theatre?

When someone threw a burger at Travis Alabanza, the trans performer turned it into a hit show. Next goal? Playing Juliet

Trans people are said to be “obsessed with pronouns”, Travis Alabanza tells me. “People think it’s tied to a millennial culture of being ‘snowflakes’.” But the writer and performer believes it comes back to “allowing marginalised people to exist under rules and parameters: ‘You can exist if you don’t make it hard for us, if you’re polite, if it’s not a nuisance.’” Yes, pronouns can be hard to get used to– Alabanza uses “they” – but it’s about effort. “Do you want to make the effort to make someone feel more comfortable? If you don’t, then that says something about you, not me.”

Alabanza has just created an immersive bedroom installation, All the Ways We Could Grow, at London’s Free Word centre. When we meet, in a large but cosy houseshare in London, Alabanza says the piece – created with artist Denny Kaulbach – stemmed from conversations about sleepovers, their childhood friendship in Bristol and “what you learn about gender from your bedroom”. The decor in the installation is “very me. Aggressively pink, mirrors everywhere, high femme.” Free Word is also a working office space. Alabanza grins: “My goal is that by the end of it, the men in suits are doing some of their business meetings on the big pink bed.”

‘People were tweeting the theatre saying I shouldn’t work there’ … Alabanza in Jubilee.
‘People were tweeting the theatre saying I shouldn’t work there’ … Alabanza in Jubilee. Photograph: Johan Persson

It’s striking how charming and open Alabanza is, particularly for someone who found themselves in the midst of a media firestorm. “I got kicked out of a changing room, tweeted about it, and ended up in the national newspapers,” they explain. “That day changed my life.” In 2017, aged 21 and starring in Chris Goode’s adaptation of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee on stage in Manchester, Alabanza tweeted about not being allowed in the women’s changing rooms in Topshop. It was met with fury. “People were tweeting the theatre saying I shouldn’t work there, turning up to protest me being there.” Topshop responded by reaffirming that its changing rooms were gender-neutral.

Alabanza “has trouble” with the “white, middle-class” lens of what queer acceptance looks like. “If we keep on shoving terminologies and words first, people go, ‘Whoa, this is new, this doesn’t make sense, it’s all young people doing this.’” For Alabanza, the essential discussion should be about “the particular violence I face, as opposed to what I am or am not. That’s a conversation for me and my loved ones. I’m more interested in the fact that me and the friends I live with can’t go to the shop around the corner without getting homophobic abuse. The fact the shop person won’t touch us, will put our money on the side because of how we look. When he’s choosing to rush us out of the shop, he’s not doing that because he’s asked, ‘Are you non-binary?’ and we’ve gone, ‘Yes.’ He’s doing that because we look gender-nonconforming.”

Alabanza was raised in Bristol by a mother with African American and Filipino heritage (Alabanza is Travis’s mother’s surname). Growing up working class “with no money”, the fact Alabanza was queer “was just always fucking obvious. I played a witch in the school play at 14. I was in, like, a black mini dress with big stockings and heels, and I was oblivious to why everyone was so nervous.”

As a child, Alabanza also had “people just cheering me on at home, which was great. I think that’s probably why [although] I’m young, I’m confident enough to be bolder in my work. Because luckily, I didn’t have what so many of my friends and the community have had: a time when your family aren’t accepting you.”

Performance “happened as soon as gender happened. I mean that seriously, in the sense that I had to survive in a working-class comprehensive school being a very visible, effeminate person that was read as a man. So, I had to learn really quick how to perform every day: when I could be myself, when I couldn’t, when I had to hide certain things. And I was like, ‘Damn, I’m good at this.’ Then I got into a drama class and it was the only class I was being celebrated for all the things that I was attacked for outside the classroom.

“I didn’t know that solo artists existed, or solo shows were a thing,” Alabanza adds. As a result, they grew up wanting to act. The dream, however, felt far-fetched — Alabanza knew their family could never afford theatre training. Then, as a 16-year-old, they walked past an open mic night at the Arts House in Bristol. Alabanza found out that signing up was free and, the next week, arrived with a newly written poem and props. “I was there, this black queer kid in the middle of all these middle-aged white men, and did this performance about a blow job.” Alabanza laughs. “And I got hooked on it.”

‘About what you learn from gender in your bedroom’ … Alabanza’s installation All the Ways We Could Grow.
‘About what you learn from gender in your bedroom’ … Alabanza’s installation All the Ways We Could Grow. Photograph: Rowan Spray

Last year, Alabanza wrote and performed the sell-out solo show Burgerz in London. Burgerz, which returns this year for a tour, was inspired by an incident when a burger was thrown at them on Waterloo Bridge. Bystanders did nothing to help. As well as gender, Burgerz explores street harassment and colonisation, while Alabanza makes a burger on stage with the help of a white man, plucked from the audience.

“I always had a doubt about my ability to write,” they say, “up until Burgerz. This whole time I’ve felt impostor syndrome – like, I can’t write but give me a stage and a mic and I’ll have the whole audience captivated. Then I realised I just was never given space to write. With Burgerz I had time, space, and it was the first time someone edited my work properly.”

Alabanza recently appeared in The Ridiculous Darkness, an adaptation of Wolfram Lotz’s radio play, which itself harks back to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. The roles in the play – all originally written as male – were performed by Alabanza and three other black female and gender-nonconforming actors. Alabanza found it “really challenging, because I’m realising that so much of my power on stage was linked to my femininity. But what I love is watching these women in the rehearsal room.”

They say this surreal piece, which was staged at the Gate in London, was “about flipping the script of what is seen as civilised and uncivilised … Lotz didn’t write any women in the whole play originally, so now we have these four non-men playing all these men.” Are traditionally male roles something Alabanza wants to do more of? They smile. “I want to take on a traditional woman’s role next. I would love to play Juliet. I would love to play a love interest.”

‘Really challenging’ … The Ridiculous Darkness.
‘Really challenging’ … The Ridiculous Darkness. Photograph: Helen Murray

As we speak about their transition into more traditional acting roles, Alabanza admits feeling frustrated with the way their identity as both a black and a trans artist feels left out of the conversation around their work. “What upsets me is that spaces will say, ‘We need to decolonise’ – and don’t realise that so much of that is decolonising gender. If we go to precolonial African countries, they had people that were gender-nonconforming through and through.

“It upsets me, because talking about transness and gender is the blackest thing I know. When I look at my mum or my aunties who are dark-skinned black women, they’re being misgendered, degendered, too. When we look at what happened to black women throughout slavery, and how their sexuality was perceived and treated, it’s all linked. It’s who’s failing at being a woman.”

In March, Alabanza also had a new work at the Bunker theatre, a commission from playwright Rachel De-Lahay. In My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid) actors read letters they have never seen before. Alabanza wrote one of those letters to a long-time friend. “We kind of have always loved each other, but have never admitted that. It was fine, but recently he came out as queer. It’s a letter to him [asking] would he want to go out with me.”

‘The decor is very me – aggressively pink’ … an image from All the Ways We Could Grow
‘The decor is very me – aggressively pink’ … an image from All the Ways We Could Grow Photograph: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images

Does Alabanza think the friend will see the show? “No. You can even put this in, because he won’t know that this is him. I think he thinks I have so many of these intimate relationships.” The most exciting thing for Alabanza was the fact the commission didn’t have much to do with gender identity. “I want to write about really universal moments, because I’m trying to reshift this idea that artists with marginalised identities don’t also experience these everyday things like heartbreak, like travel, like all these things I feel other artists are allowed to write about.”

Alabanza is also working on a piece about loneliness, for London festival The Sick of the Fringe, called I Tried to Fuck Up the System But None of My Friends Texted Back. “After Burgerz, I was like, ‘I don’t have anything new to say about this.’” What’s this? “Trans-ness. Gender. I’ve been documenting harassment and my relationship to being a trans, visibly gender-nonconforming person for four or five years now. I did that because no one else was. Now I’m like, ‘Actually, you look at article after article, I’m not saying anything new.’ Burgerz has said it, and will continue to say it when it comes back. I want to look at new things.”

They pause before adding: “I was not excited to write about it any more. I’m fatigued from it, so I can’t imagine what audiences must feel.” Alabanza laughs again. “I should say, though, I can still talk about gender if the fee’s right.”

Contributor

Bridget Minamore

The GuardianTramp

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