Burgerz review: A mordant meditation on a hurled insult
Dublin Theatre Festival: A wry, wounded Travis Alabanza confronts transphobia
Burgerz: Travis Alabanza lifts the lid on our potential for empathy, alliance and complicity. Photograph: Dorothea Tuch
Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin
In Panti’s celebrated noble call speech from the stage of the Abbey Theatre, in 2014, the drag queen and “accidental activist” described having a milk carton flung at her, together with a homophobic slur. The incident, as she saw it, was somewhere between hateful and trivial, but it opened up a conversation about an entire culture. “It doesn’t hurt,” she said, “but it feels oppressive.”
In Burgerz, the theatremaker Travis Alabanza describes something similar: a daylight assault in London, in which a man threw a burger at them, together with a transphobic slur. “I think over 100 people saw,” Alabanza recalls, “and I know no one did anything.”
So begins an alternately wry, witty and wounded meditation on the weapon of choice. As Alabanza sets out to make a hamburger, with some pointed audience assistance, they skilfully outline the ingredients within the oppression facing trans and gender-nonconforming bodies.
An engaging performer, Alabanza has a crisp, contemporary writing style: picture the burger, they ask us: “The emoji. The archetype... But let’s not pretend we didn’t all have ideas for how this burger should look.”
On a pleasingly retro set, which its designer, Soutra Gilmour, gives neon-pink adornments, this opens up considerations of containment. “Do you feel boxed in?” asks Alabanza, who is black and trans, of their volunteer. On opening night this role was fulfilled by an uncommonly precise and sympathetic young American named Oscar, who is nonetheless cast as a representative of “structural privilege”.
The burger, prepared and cooked over wickedly funny quips and drinks, may be a kind of plot McGuffin (if that didn’t sound like a Hitchcockian Happy Meal), but when Alabanza vividly relates a whole biography of oppression – quotidian public indignities, deep private anxieties, even national outrages – the show become more rawly confrontational.
As the joking repartee dissipates, Alabanza remonstrates against history’s erasing of transgendered deities, the repressive legacies of colonisation and alarming surges in hate crime. But their focus becomes a single figure: the passive bystander, a totem of a wider culture, which is to say, finally: us. “You have your hands wrapped around my neck.”
The effect, whatever your politics, is less to harangue than to challenge and sober. Like Anu’s Faultline, which evokes the harassments behind the early days of Ireland’s gay-rights movement, and asks its audience “What would you have done?”, Alabanza lifts the lid on our potential for empathy, alliance and complicity. Nor do they simply leave you with food for thought. After seeing Burgerz, and the sharp shock of its conclusion, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to stand idly by.
Runs until Saturday, October 12th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival