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Travis Alabanza: Being a black, trans theatremaker feels lonely but I’m not the only one – it’s time our work was recognised

Burgerz by Travis Alabanza

Being black and trans and making theatre can be lonely work. I know I am not the only one, but it can certainly feel like it.

It’s midweek in week one of rehearsals for my new show, Burgerz. I sit down outside the National Theatre Studio on a curb that by week two will be named “my cigarette spot” and by week three renamed “the panic step”.

I record a voice note to make sense of what’s scaring me, uncovering the real fear: I’ve got no one to call that has done this before.

 I instantly hear voices telling me this is a lie. I think of Scottee, a bold, brave, loud, queer, working-class theatremaker who directed me in Putting Words in Your Mouth and has texted me throughout my career saying “you got this babes”.

Travis Alabanza. Photo: Elise Rose
Travis Alabanza. Photo: Holly Revell

I think of Selina Thompson, who reminded me of my artistry many times when I forgot it, sharing a nod that only black artists in this white-dominated industry can understand. Or Emma Frankland’s joyous and reassuring smile reminding me of the beautiful ways I have seen trans people shine on stage. But the questions and doubt persist.

Diversity has become such a buzzword in the arts that I often forget the tangible ways in which erasure and invisibility impact us. 

It’s impossible not to notice the rise in more reflective narratives appearing in theatre on a much bigger scale. Debris Stevenson’s grime-inspired Poet in Da Corner and stories of South Asian immigrant families reflected in An Adventure. Milk’s Bullish injected honest trans theatre to regional audiences and there have been huge moments in black theatre in the last year – I’m still not over Barber Shop Chronicles.

But sat on my cigarette step ahead of my first solo show of this scale and this working-class, black, non-university educated, trans queer kid suddenly feels alone.

Burgerz by Travis Alabanza
Burgerz by Travis Alabanza

While the world is still catching up on realising black art exists, or trans people can make work, it’s often those that exist on the multiple of margins that have to wait longer to see themselves reflected. I google “black trans theatremakers in the UK” and cannot find a canon to fall back on, a soundboard to hear or show to see. And with erasure comes loneliness.

I know I am not the only one. With artists such as Krishna Istha or Kimberley Clarke, it’s clear black trans performance art must have a history here too. But I sigh at how unavailable this is, or how it did not receive the attention it deserves. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re not archived or included in conversations about diversifying theatre. We need trans theatre that is black, and black theatre that is trans.

I text my friend: “It feels scary not having points of reference that look like you.” My friend replies: “Well I’m so glad you are creating a reference point for others, now get off up the step and get back to work”.