Alabanza Sets The Stage for an Overflow of Trans Talent
rrramble written by Alex Howe.
Image credits: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Overflow, from transfemme writer Travis Alabanza, hit arts headlines across the country this month as the newest offering from the Bush Theatre. It could be viewed online given Covid lockdown, which “reconnects us with the human realities often obscured by fervid debate around trans issues”, according to I News. Despite the beauty of this production, the idea that it could cover so much ground is ridiculous: ‘trans issues’ are no such monolith. I loved Overflow, and we need more productions like it, without seeing a narrow focus like specifically transfeminine experiences as a negative thing.
Overflow boldly situates itself in the contested space of the women’s bathroom, with an hour-long slice of the reality of that space for our protagonist Rosie. The set is complete with running water that rises as the play continues, really allowing the flooding metaphor throughout to shine. Actress Reece Lyons is perfect in this role – commanding, funny, frustrated and scared whilst aiming for fearlessness, which to me seems a perfect summary of most women I know. Topics covered in this segmented monologue span from flooding toilets in primary school, to bonding with other women in club toilets and at a rave, to a childhood fear of the bogeyman. Despite the universal nature of some of these experiences, Overflow never lets us forget that for others, Rosie is entirely defined by her identity as a trans woman. After all, the play is set in a women’s bathroom that our protagonist is chased into at the beginning, and the harassers outside repeatedly interrupt the monologue with the sound of slamming on the door. This is a play that doesn’t let you relax in your seat – an important reminder for any cis audience member. I found myself writing down the quotes “after the second time I got roughed up in the toilet…” and “if it’s you from last week…” while watching, because they carry a candour that I think is desperately needed. The stats on harassment of trans people, particularly women, who simply want to use a bathroom, often speak for themselves, but this play reinforces that there’s a person behind every number.
Image credit: eatliver.com
In one section, Rosie lists all of the different functions a women’s bathroom can perform, defining it as a social space with an emphasis on its potential for sisterhood and collective healing. To me (and I’m sure many other nonbinary, transmasculine people or transmen) this idea is familiar but personally untrue. If it were safe to exist otherwise, I’d happily never be in a women’s bathroom ever again and avoid the sinking feeling in my gut whenever I have to walk past that familiar ‘female’ outline. The interesting contrast here is that, as far as I’m aware, ‘male’ toilets are not a social space in anywhere near the same way. You don’t commonly find groups of men in a club flocking to the bathroom only for a friend, having long conversations about the girl who’s on the dancefloor with a stranger or carefully styling each-others hair. Don’t get me wrong, I wish you did! This emphasises the selectiveness of the focus Alabanza has chosen, and it’s quite right too that a transfeminine story is given the spotlight – I just really hope it sets a precedent for others. At the university I attended (UEA), the toilets in the main student union are gender-neutral and remain so when the space converts into a club some nights. It’s not quite a gender-free paradise or anything, but it is definitely one rare space in which I never had to worry about a bathroom on a night out. I’ve seen people trying on each other’s lipstick, comforting a friend who’s crying or gossiping over a sink plenty of times, and they didn’t have to be comfortable with the term ‘female’ to be there. I’d love to see somewhere like that represented on stage.
What the character of Rosie focuses on is a sense of sisterhood that by its nature will always be somewhat unrelatable to me. What I certainly can understand, however, is the value in and desire for a space away from “the men that have hurt both of us”. This line really stuck with me because it cuts to the root of the trans bathroom ‘problem’: the threat of violence and harassment. Outside of Overflow’s focus sit all the other trans people for whom ‘women’s toilets don’t provide an escape, and here’s hoping we get productions for us too. But by allying Rosie with other women rather than against them, I love the point Alabanza quietly makes. In such a vast majority of cases the threat to women comes from outside femininity, and hatred for trans women will do nothing to protect anyone, regardless of if they’re cis or not. In fact, recently it hit the news that butch cis women are increasingly being harassed in ‘female’ toilets by those who assume they must be trans; the sectionalism at the heart of this kind of transphobia is also hurting their (cis) own. Wouldn’t another production about that be great? TERFs have got even more outspoken since She Who Must Not be Named joined their ranks, and this is referenced too, in the twitter noise cleverly incorporated into Overflow as the unseen attackers are presumably tweeting. This isn’t simply a dire situation for trans women, it’s also one that’s worsening. In Overflow, Rosie poignantly considers calling up the women who have been kind to her in bathrooms in the past, to “check they haven’t changed their minds”, and I wish I was sure they wouldn’t have. But I’m not.
Image credit: writeaplay.co.uk – Travis Alabanza
A key focus of Overflow is the critique of performative allyship, which comes through every description of Rosie’s friend Charlotte, the self-dubbed “ultimate ally”. This is something I can hugely relate to as a trans person. Alabanza’s writing has perfectly encapsulated how being tokenised feels and the pity that underpins being treated as a friend’s personal charity case, no matter how liberal they deem themselves. Possibly my favourite moment of the whole play was this quote, where Rosie addressed the audience as though we are Charlotte; “What are you doing when I’m not there to see it? What is your stake in this? What are you losing?” This is the moment where art both about and by trans people really comes into its own. If you want to call yourself a trans ally you will make sacrifices, or your allyship will be lacking.
There is a strange irony here, however. Perhaps things have changed, but I visited the Bush Theatre from which Overflow is streamed in 2019 in person, to see And the Rest of Me Floats, another trans-focused narrative. The toilets there were gendered. The only gender-neutral toilet was an accessible one, for which the key has to be collected from the reception. What does it then mean, for this theatre to put on a production written by a trans femme, but have no toilets for those uncomfortable with binary selections? Of course, the Bush choosing to put on this production can be seen as an act of allyship, but they can and should do more. Alabanza themselves tweeted that they hoped this production was the first of many by trans artists, and that “more and more theatres commission a plethora of our voices!”. If this were to happen, as I hope it does, what would theatres like the Bush do in the face of a nonbinary playwright, or cast? When will they, too, put more at stake?
Image credit: http://www.architecturendesign.net
There’s one question I found myself asking once I’d sat in the aftermath of the stream for a little while. Who is Overflow for? An angry trans-exclusionist might find the very evidence they’ve been looking for if they chose their examples very selectively. After all, Rosie does destroy the bathroom in the play’s finale, echoing a shattering of a safe space transwomen have been feeling for a while now. As much as representation can be a balm, I don’t think trans people are the definite audience here, with the stares and harassment all too familiar to be particularly ground-breaking for us, and given the range and diversity in our experiences. Maybe the real aim was to reinforce the reality of transwomen’s experience for those possible ‘Charlottes’ in the audience, who aim to claim the ally label without effort. Maybe the ideal audience for Overflow is simply anyone who’ll listen. In the print copy of the play, part of the dedication is as follows: “Overflow is dedicated to all the trans people I know, am yet to know, and will never know – it is to write into this moment how much more we deserve. I look forward to the day we are allowed to breathe lighter.”
Overflow may not allow us to breathe lighter, but it certainly documents how thin the air is getting.
Note: The UK government is currently seeking evidence on the topic of toilet provision.
The language of the commission is worryingly trans-exclusionary, with its only focus being on how gender-neutral toilets put (cis) women at some kind of disadvantage.
The main concern is the number of TERFs that will respond to this enquiry, and we could do with all the allies we can get in response.
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