Reviewing Travis Alabanza at Housmans: A Conversation With The Queer Brown Muddy Kid, with SA Smythe
BY AMA JOSEPHINE BUDGE
“Because we were told to be Black and Proud until that meant holding hands,
That we could march on the streets as long as our heels are at home
That we can only have our grandmothers red stain on our cheeks,
Because we were told our masculinity must be preserved.
I remember realising your eyes were also brown,
That both our Sundays were spent with black notes screaming for the keys-seasons Spilling from the fullness of the pan,
And loud maternal belly roars engulfing our ears.
I remember realising that hiding in our hands is the war of our mothers,
That in the grounds of trodden lands holds a story like our own,
That in the breath of our Gods holds a smell like our sheets,
And that this fruit is only forbidden if we make it so…”
– Travis Alabanza, Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid (2016)
On Sunday 22nd March, 2016 I got in a cab from A&E where I’d been with a close family member to Kings Cross St Pancreas station in London. I then walked to Housemans radical bookshop for a night of what I expected to be enveloping brown queerness. It was hailed as the last ever performance of Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid and there was an energy of transition in the atmosphere, tangible, tasteable. As though we had all come together for a rite of passage ritual, and everyone would be asked to sacrifice some small treasure, a sliver of their own-ness. Knowing something of the work of Travis Alabanza and SA Smythe, who would be in-conversation with Travis later in the evening, I considered attending this event to be a part of my radical self-care policy. I was not disappointed.
The night was opened by self-identifying radical academic, poet/performer, Black genderqueer writer SA Smythe reading an unrequited love-letter to America. Their words pour over my face like hot tears full of honesty and truth, systematic, well-meaning, inter-familial. Cutting deep, like the exposure of inter-racial racism. The faces of frisked black boys with their hands against a disintegrating brick wall hover illusively in my mind. It’s as though their lives are already slipping between the fingers of those that would hold them. I hear the call of activists trying to call-out a government they know still won’t listen, patriots with eyes misted over like first-time lovers. I think of other artists that have submitted love-letters to their nation; Gill Scott Heron, Nora Jones, Jill Scott, Pink, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan. I wonder why we keep asking to be heard. I guess it’s why we keep falling in love.
Smythe’s words are haunting and familiar, like the hands of a loving parent who washes your skin in scalding water that burns. I think of a performance I was honoured to bear witness to last year in Harlem; Toshi Regan with her mother and daughter discussing blackness, activism and singing their way to freedom. I think of a story Toshi recalls, being walked home by the teacher for hitting another child in school, and her mother, rather than berating her, wraps the child in her arms and tells her it’s all alright. I felt seen in the audience then. I feel seen now too. Smythe is joined by beatboxer and loop artist Xana for one of their performances, they share a microphone and community blossoms on stage. There is something knowing, wise, sad in the calm recitation, and when Smythe’s voice fills the room in song, breaking and imperfect, I feel pieces of the room break open. Stomachs ready to be filled by the eruptive performance that would soon follow.
Travis Alabanza is a Black, Queer, non-binary Performance poet, artist and writer. Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid employs video art, well-amped club music and live vocals all of which are inhabited by a fully embodied live performance from Alabanza, sequins, bounty-bars, milk cartons and all. Seating only 40 plus guests, I am aware that this may be one of the most intimate settings the show has been performed in. Here, surrounded by radical feminist, socialist, anarchist, anti-work, black liberationist literature; a world dominated by old white men, middle-class white women and the few class-classified or racialised bookshelves we hold on to so dearly, the performance feels like an occupation. I make a point to sit at the front; my brownness speaking to the browness of those on stage more than the white attendees that make up a large part of the audience. I think it is a shame that such a limited capacity is filled with so many racially privileged bodies, despite the request on the event page ‘as there is limited space, if you can give back to Black trans art: do.’ I guess entitlement is hard to shift.
Alabanza appears, teetering on vulnerable in high heels and small, tight, black shorts. Their body appears in angles, jagged, unmaluable, inherently offensive yet simultaneously fascinating to whiteness. The light-skinned “negro-fantasy” Alabanza will reference later, is already viscerally in the room.
“Mum! I’m coming out!” They cry (and I think many of us hear our own mothers answering) – “Of where?” – “The closet!”
The humour of the opening builds as Alabanza works harder and harder to ‘come out’ and into the perfect gay male persona. Eventually bounty bars are stuffed between aching jaws and milk dribbles down their body, poured down the gullet like a caricature of lads getting pissed on match day. The white creamy liquid writes over the blackness of their clothes and the skin beneath them. They talk about being fucked, about fucking and the synapses connections in my mind are full of shadows, bruises and stomach’s that turn the morning afterwards. I want to look down, to look away, it feels ugly and embarrassing and violent. I open my eyes wider. That’s exactly how it is supposed to feel.
Later, in the Q&A – a rare breaking down of the fourth wall, a beautiful confrontation of the audiences’ implication and complicity – Alabanza talks about using the show to feel power over experiences of ugly racism and transmisogyny in the queer community. Because that is of course where it cuts us deepest, in the families that we try to create when the ones we were given are no longer survivable. “Performance as an act of reclamation.” This performance, much as with Smythe’s earlier song, feels like an act of resistance; a living thing born out of necessity rather than a taste for exposure. It is rough around the edges. Parts of it feel un-honed, in-your-face, obvious-even, but underneath this is a calm-precision in Alabanza’s performance. I feel the sweat on their flesh as they work to maintain control both of the piece, the audience and their own body. I am aware of the work it takes to continue resisting, evading oppressive, binary, classifications. The tale is flighty, unsettled and unsettling, I perceive this as a survival tactic. The artist explains in the Q&A how “this show can never be the same in every space, to a white audience the ‘fuck me harder’ section can’t be done softly.” Maybe later, Alabanza explains, now that I’m done with this show – and this show is done with me – I don’t need it any more, my work can be more subtle, but this work couldn’t be subtle, it was about surviving.
From the moment we enter Housemans, throughout the performance and most explicitly in the post-show-discussion both Smythe and Alabanza make it clear that their work is predominantly for queer, trans and non-binary POC bodies. They acknowledge it’s usefulness for all audiences, and the importance of it being seen in a multitude of settings, but by speaking first and foremost to the brown bodies in the room, whiteness seems to recede to the back, de-centred. I marvel at the tactic that is both unapologetic and full of love for those who are marginalised and illegalised both systemically and socially. I think about radicalism, and I think it must look something like this.
Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid moves us through ‘coming out’ as gay, to finding queerness to finding queer brown love and finally embodying non-gender-binary spaces. The piece, whilst darkly humorous and a times brutal in its delivery, remains charged and hopeful: “Maybe tomorrow when asked if I’m a boy or a girl, I won’t have to decide.” The question and answer session orbits around the subject of ‘audience’; who is seeing our work, whom is it for, and how can we effect who we think needs to see it? It’s a question that has plagued most black, brown and queer artists, including myself, for as long as they’ve been making work. Smythe and Alabanza take each question openly, I feel they are both baring themselves, whilst simultaneously performing strength, survival, self care. I feel spurred to rise to meet them and I feel the audience sit up, lean in, embracing their implication in what happens in this room, and what will happen outside of it.
As applause fills the space and the energy dissipates into stolen chocolate bars and whispered conversation, embraces, smiles, congratulations, I think about some of Alabanza’s last words: “Black Queer and Trans bodies are not here for your consumption, we’re still here after the show and we were here before.” Stories of a Queer Brown Muddy Kid is an act of reclamation, an act of resistance, of self-care. But more than any of this it is about saying we are all figuring it out, it’s okay not to fit, stop inflicting violence on our bodies and find somebody brown who will love you as hard as you are learning to love yourself. It was an event I was proud to witness, to be part of, to write about. We need more of Alabanza and Smythe’s work in the world. We need to go out and make it.