Travis Alabanza Burgerz. (Elise Rose)
At the end of their show, Burgerz, Travis Alabanza asks an audience member to throw a burger at them.
The person, who volunteered to go on stage to hold Travis’s hands but was not expecting this, balls their own hands into fists and clutches them to their chest.
Shaking their head, “no”, they return to their seat, sobbing. As they clamber down from the stage, Travis briefly places a hand on their shoulder in a silent gesture of empathy.
Holding the burger, Travis turns their back on the audience and the lights go out. The burger makes a squelchy thump when it lands. When the lights come up, there is just one beat between the clapping starting and the audience standing up as one to cheer.
Burgerz is Travis Alabanza’s debut solo show, first put on by Hackney Showroom in 2018 and toured this year in the UK and Europe, from Berlin to Dublin, including a month’s stint at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.
The 23-year-old writer, performer and theatre-maker wrote Burgerz after someone threw a burger at them and yelled “tranny” in broad daylight on Waterloo Bridge – minutes from the stage on which they now stand.
“I think over one hundred people saw and I know no one did anything,” they say at the beginning of the show.
Wearing blue overalls and tan work boots – a look echoed by their BSL interpreter, Jackie, who shares the stage with them – they tell us how they then became obsessed with burgers in an attempt to reclaim their agency.
Over the course of their captivating performance, Travis makes and cooks a burger from scratch, onstage, with the help of a cisgender white man from the audience.
This structure allows Travis to show us the burden inflicted on queer people of colour by white people. The black trans victim of transphobic violence must unpack the experience, recover from it and process it, and then package it up for an audience – because, as Travis points out, we will believe their trauma if they make it into art, but, as the continuing, relentless violence they experience in public shows, we are not listening and taking action when it’s needed (demonstrated by rising hate-crime statistics).
Travis asks the cis white man a series of careful questions: Do you think rooms get tense when race gets brought up? Which came first, the burger box or the burger? What does it feel like to be a man? When was the last time you cried?
The ensuing dialogue reveals how smart this setup is. Deciding between burgers or hot dogs, and then whether to first make the burger and then make a box for it or vice versa, becomes a critique of the gender binary: “We’re policing people before we know who they are and then punishing them when they fail.”
Daniel, the white cis man who Travis mock-fondly refers to as “Danzy”, responds to the question of what it feels like to be a man with, “That question doesn’t make any sense.” At that point, it was almost palpable how hard the trans people in the audience were relating to what they were hearing.
There were other moments that spoke directly to experiences likely to have been shared by trans people watching, too – Travis has two burger buns taped to their chest with hot pink packing tape when they say, “I can’t tell if it’s something I want or something I think that I need.”
That’s not to say there isn’t humour in their show; there is. Travis is dryly, laconically funny, and they play with the audience: when they remove their overalls to reveal a belted dress and the audience doesn’t clap, they quip, “In the era of RuPaul, you’ve all become desensitised to a good reveal!”; when the audience later claps the cis white man who’s volunteered to go on stage, Travis retorts, “White man applauded for walking. Groundbreaking.”
By the end of the show, the smell from the cooking burger has enveloped the audience. Gender, racism, colonial violence, a brief history of non-binary genders and the correct amount of seasoning for a burger (there were plenty of jokes about white people) have all been covered.
“Doing nothing is a choice,” Travis says, of the hundreds of people on Waterloo Bridge who saw the burger get thrown at them and did nothing, and of us, too.
As the 300-odd audience members spill out onto the South Bank of the river Thames, having given Travis’s opening night a standing ovation, the overriding feeling is one of speechlessness.
Outside smells like burgers cooking, too, courtesy of London’s winter night market. It seems unlikely that anyone from the audience will come into contact with burgers again without thinking of Travis Alabanza.