Travis Alabanza: Black Trans Lives Matter

Travis Alabanza: Black Trans Lives Matter

Leeds Black History Month got off to a phenomenal start on Tuesday, as the Union played host to the uncompromising artistic presence that is Travis Alabanza. Travis, a black transfemme performance artist, delivered an astounding piece that combined elements of poetry, soundscape, and theatrics in order to create something entirely unique.

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The performance began with a mantra being repeated over and over via the sound system, as Travis stood on stage, visually enacting a psychological exploration of their own body. The oppressive mantra seemed to taunt Travis, questioning why they ‘wear make-up’ and refuse to ‘play by the rules’. It was a mantra that became disturbingly lyrical, taking on the form of a nursery rhyme, as Travis too began to join in on some parts. As well as implying a complex relationship between society and the self, this opening also did away with traditional artistic forms. Was this poetry, theatrical performance art, soundscape, or something else entirely? This redefining of boundaries, this bold challenge to tradition, set the tone for the rest of the night.

What is perhaps most striking about the evening that followed, was how intimately personal the performance was. Throughout, Travis disclosed much about their own life that was as real as it was harrowing. One particular anecdote about day-to-day prejudice, which was used as the backstory to a poem about ‘black love’, was particularly visceral.

‘What is perhaps most striking about the evening that followed, was how intimately personal the performance was.’

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Due to this intense intimacy, it is hard for me as a writer to talk about any general effect that the pieces had on ‘the audience’. By acknowledging their own individuality, Travis forced oneself to acknowledge that each and every one of us is different – that we would all experience the piece differently. So I will not talk in generalities. I will simply say how I was effected. And for me, Travis achieved the impossible. They made me see that a poem about a blowjob could be as funny as it was heart-breaking. They made me see that there are challenges which some have to face, of which I have never before conceived. But above all, despite all my white privilege, despite my appalling ignorance of their world, Travis made me feel like I could understand. For a brief, fleeting moment I was miraculously transported into another person’s shoes. Now, I am not suggesting in any way that I now suddenly ‘get it’, that I could possibly now know what it is like to be black and trans in this country. I am merely attesting to the talent of Travis Alabanza.

‘They made me see that there are challenges which some have to face, of which I have never before conceived. But above all, despite all my white privilege, despite my appalling ignorance of their world, Travis made me feel like I could understand. For a brief, fleeting moment I was miraculously transported into another person’s shoes.’

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The performance ended in a suitably challenging way. The audience became the backing track for Travis’ last poem, as we were encouraged to chant the probing questions: ‘What about their bodies? What about their protection?’ The significance of this was heightened upon the delivery of yet another powerful line from Travis, which described how they could be accepted on stage, but often not in the outside world. The challenge laid to us was clear. This performance was not something to be consumed and forgotten; it was to be taken with us to the outside world. Hopefully, for me at least, it will be.

‘This performance was not something to be consumed and forgotten; it was to be taken with us to the outside world.’

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James Candler

(Images: Ben Hutchinson)

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