Most performers ask us to look at them. Trans playwright-actor Travis Alabanza asks us to look at ourselves, and the view isn’t pretty.
But it is illuminating. That’s a big part of theater’s job, one that Alabanza fulfills in “Burgerz” with a blend of dramaturgical craft and searing testimony born of lived experience.
Directed by Sam Curtis Lindsay and now at ArtsEmerson, “Burgerz” is a firsthand account of how it feels, as a trans person, to live in a world where many see you as someone to be mocked, scorned, and abused, verbally or physically — and where many others stand by and do nothing when that happens.
It may seem paradoxical, but isn’t, that “Burgerz” is also laced with a lot of humor. The 26-year-old Alabanza, who is British and uses “they/them” pronouns, has an arresting stage presence, a knack for improvisation, and a quick wit, and deploys them all. Humor, after all, is one way to reclaim control over your own narrative.
But the pain and anger coursing through “Burgerz” is never far below the surface. And when it does surface, this performer can freeze the room into stillness and silence with sheer mesmeric force. Alabanza is saying, in essence: Here are my experiences, and here are my wounds, and why is it necessary to show them to you for you to believe that they are real, that I am real?
“Burgerz” was inspired by an attack on Alabanza in April 2016 on Waterloo Bridge in London, where a hamburger was thrown at them while someone shouted a transphobic slur. Although by Alabanza’s estimate more than 100 people witnessed the attack, “No one did anything.”
That grim refrain will recur again and again in “Burgerz,” contextualizing the threats to trans people within the kind of wider societal indifference that essentially gives permission for those threats.
There are a few times in “Burgerz” when Alabanza is so intent on delivering their message that they venture toward a certain spelling-it-out obviousness. The ending initially tip-toes into that territory, but it turns out that Alabanza is laying the groundwork for a truly jolting denouement.
Serving as the framing device of the 70-minute, one-act “Burgerz” is the very food that was weaponized against Alabanza on that bridge. With the assistance of a volunteer from the audience, on a kitchen set with a working stove, the performer takes us through the step-by-step process of preparing, cooking, and assembling a hamburger, a foodstuff whose feeling and smell obsessed Alabanza for a time after the assault on the bridge.
As they do so, Alabanza engages in pointed conversation about burgers and buns and boxes and spices; about the insistence on assigning people into categories (”We are policing people before they even know the person they are”); about commonalities within the multifarious complexities of identity (Alabanza is Black, with Filipino heritage); about being constantly asked “ ‘What will you have done?’ As if trans can never be a destination. As if trans is synonym for broken body.”)
And, in a moment that pierces the heart, Alabanza acknowledges feeling safer on the stage than on the street, because of “the continuous cloud surrounding me.”
Over the course of “Burgerz,” Alabanza ticks off some of the many varieties of abuse and harassment they’ve been subjected to: being beaten up for wearing a dress; called a “freak” by a cab driver, who drove away; labeled “an abomination to mankind” by one subway passenger and asked “What the [expletive] are you?” by another; singled out by a group of girls at a shopping mall who tried to trip them on some stairs. And more, including, inevitably, vilification on Twitter. Denied entry to an all-gender changing room when they sought to buy a dress in a British clothing store, Alabanza became the target of innumerable tweets “telling me I should die” after the incident attracted wide publicity.
Questions of life or death, of who is considered a person and who is not, are far from rhetorical. “Burgerz” has arrived in Boston as part of the show’s premiere tour in the United States at a time when transgender people are increasingly the targets of attacks, physical and legislative.
Against that backdrop, it amounts to a combination of admonition, plea, warning, and call to conscience when Alabanza says, in a moment that crystallizes the sense of urgency undergirding “Burgerz,” that: “Doing nothing is not neutral.”
Written and performed by Travis Alabanza. Directed by Sam Curtis Lindsay. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Emerson Paramount Center. Through April 24. $60. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org