About Me, For Me, By Me, Near Me: Travis Alabanza’s Radical Narcissism
This is one of two simultaneous performance reviews of Travis Albanza’s BEFORE I STEP OUTSIDE (YOU LOVE ME) Anomaly is publishing (see also: “Trans Feminist Killjoys Just Wanna Have Fun” by Noah Fields). Performance is ephemeral: it sparks layered discourse then dissipates, leaving only traces in the minds of those lucky enough to be in the audience. In this case, two Anomaly reviewers shared the experience of a special U.S. performance by rising U.K. star Travis Alabanza at the Black Lavender Experience. Two gender-nonconforming critics, both deeply moved, recuperating the material traces of memory as performative (and reverberative) steps out, towards potential liberations. In laying these responses side by side, we hope to propel conversations about the subjectivity of witnessing and documenting trans performance art. Perhaps the doubled perspectives will create a buzzing surplus, a queer “open mesh” (in the words of Eve Sedgwick) “of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning.”
“The plays of a real Negro theatre must be: 1. “About us.” That is, they must have plays which reveal Negro life as it is. 2. “By us.” That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continued association just what it means to be a Negro today. 3. “For us.” That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. 4. “Near us.” The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro peoples.” — W.E.B. Dubois, The Crisis Magazine, 1926
These words were written by W.E.B. Dubois 92 years ago at the height of The Harlem Renaissance, reflecting the literary voice that African-American theatre makers were asserting in face of extreme whiteness within their field. The impulse to create a theatre that is about us, by us, for us, and near us echoed the demand for black artists to take into their own hands the task of representing blackness, to find and imagine a black identity that is not only “real,” but it also has to be widely available to black people.
2018. Whiteness still dominates theatre, from infrastructures to resources, from representation to narratives, from historical to contemporary canon. Theatre at large continues to be made about white people, by white people, for white people, and near white people, despite the illusionary effort to universalize whiteness as a common truth that can include, or better yet, to assimilate the others. Thus, Dubois’ call for a real black theatre has not at all lost its resonance in today’s time— perhaps real black theatres do actually exist… kind of… sometime… mostly in February.
I stumble upon Dubois’ text just two days before I witnessed Travis Alabanza’s Before I Step Outside (You Love Me), a solo show presented as part of the Black Lavender Experience at Brown University. A black, trans, and gender non-conforming artist, Alabanza manages in the span of one hour to burst open the intersectional matrix of white supremacy, cis-patriarchy, and heteronormativity, the latter two of which Dubois certainly fails to address in his advocacy for a real black theatre. Yet, Before I Step Outside also channels and amplifies Dubois’ urgent questions regarding the potential of theatre vis-à-vis marginalized identities. Why theatre? Why performance? Why would we who are black and/or trans feel the need to step inside the blackbox to act, to dance, to speak, and to spectate?
Before I Step Outside (You Love Me) opens with a 15-minute theatrical reading from Alabanza’s own chapbook of the same title, reflecting on the violent space of the street, of the outside that their black and trans self has to traverse on a daily basis. The stage is dimly lit. “I don’t look outside today,” the ominous sound score starts fading in, composed of distorted vocals piling on top of each other over a layer of melancholic hum.
“Travis, I love you. Travis, I love you. Travis, I love you. Travis, I love you.”
Dressed solemnly yet stylishly in all black, Alabanza emerges slowly, inching toward mic stand elevated on the platform at the center of the stage. The room sinks heavy, its gravity weighs down on my seat, my attention is heightened…
“Travis, you deserve more than the violence you experience. Travis you do not deserve the violence you experience. Travis you are not the violence you experience. Travis you are not the experience you experience before I, you step outside.”
Alabanza delivers these affirmations with a kind of fervency that cuts open the tension which has been boiling up within the intimate theatre space. With a confrontational presence and a fast-pacing rhythm, Alabanza wakes the audience up with the vivid images of the daily violence that they have to navigate when walking outside. “I took a selfie before walking outside today to archive my existence before any physical damage.” The outside, then, unfolds as a sea of obstacles that they have to overcome, and often not without injuries and scars. The outside becomes no different than a war zone that they have to fight through before getting back to the inside to recuperate. The outside is a space that is not designed for them, for their black trans self, and hence cannot be taken for granted, but it must be restlessly fought for.
As the light comes up signaling the end of the reading session, Alabanza in a Brechtian moment steps outside the character of the poet-self to reveal that the theatre space right then right there is also an outside that they have to navigate: “Bitch I just gave a fucking gospel and none of you clicked even once... This is what I call cis awkwardness.” They continue their improvised monologue with a sense of wittiness that is sharp, fierce, and unapologetically confrontational: “This is not a theatre show. You are not watching a theatre show. You are coming to a therapy session that I couldn’t afford.”
Even though they are publicly known for their dynamic activism in almost any other contexts, here Alabanza chooses to solely focus on the self and heal the self, thus rejecting the us in Dubois’ text — they make this work without trying to elevate any one’s voice except their own. In other words, the work is not made for us, but it is made for me, by me, about me, and near me.
If blackness in Dubois’ text is posited in a binary opposition with whiteness to establish an illusive demarcation between us and them, Alabanza offers their me-ness as a constantly shifting force of galvanization and care that carves out a space for multi-faceted identities to come together without necessarily consolidating into a unified category. The self-centered approach in Before I Step Outside is not at all selfish, because there are many ways in which Alabanza through their radical narcissism tends to those of us who are black, who are of color, who are trans, who are gender non-conforming.
Throughout the performance, Alabanza constantly asks cis, straight, and/or white people to make themselves seen and known by helping the artists with various miscellaneous tasks, and thus contributing their labor toward the functioning of the show. “I only want cis people to help me throughout the whole show,” Alabanza makes themselves extremely clear. Meanwhile, I, a Vietnamese gender non-conforming artist, get to sit back and enjoy the show without ever worrying that I would be put on the spot. In this rare occasion, my queerness and femininity is no longer a spectacle; my body is no longer on public display, to be located and to be exposed.
At one point, Alabanza even allows us trans/queer/gender-nonconforming to be literally not seen by inviting us to dance to Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” while commanding all the other folks to close their eyes. In this euphoric moment, the work allows me to not only escape the gaze of the “outsiders” — the ones who perpetuate the violent outside — but I also get to share the stage with the insiders, to acknowledge each other, and to validate our collective existence. This outside-inside dynamic is not the same as the binary us-them that Dubois set up. Rather, the outside-inside is constantly in flux in relation to Alabanza’s multifaceted self, contracting and expanding as they move across the messiness of their own race and gender identity.
In today’s time where millennials are often thought to be products of a selfish generation, where a lot of theorists are worrying about the “self(ie) culture,” Alabanza proves that the self can be much more capacious than its singular being. “Travis you are not the experience you experience before I, you step outside.” The self is entangled in the first person, the second person, and the third person — the me is always in a porous relationship with the you, the us, the them. Thus, to care for the self is to care for the plurality that enables the self, the collective that folds into the solo body on stage. To say “Travis, I love you” is a form of radical narcissism, a form of self-love that extends both beyond and beneath the self.
I love you. I love the me in you. I love the us in you. And perhaps, I even love the them outside of you, the them that tramples on your existence and creates who you are today.