TBB Talks To… Playwrights Travis Alabanza and Dipo Baruwa-Etti

Travis Alabanza is a performer, writer, and theatre-maker. Dipo Baruwa-Etti is a playwright, poet, and filmmaker.

Travis Alabanza’s work spans poetry, installation, and performance art, both within and outside the theatre space.  Alongside the widespread acclaim of their hit show Burgerz – which explores gender, the harassment of trans people on the streets, and colonisation – Alabanza has starred in Rachel De-Lahay’s My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid) at the Bunker Theatre and The Ridiculous Darkness at the Gate Theatre. 

Dipo Baruwa-etti’s catalogue of achievements include being the winner of the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme, being a participant in the BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme 2020, being an alumnus of the Royal Court and being in the Tamasha Playwrights scheme. His work as a poet was showcased nationwide as part of End Hunger UK’s touring exhibition on food insecurity and his debut play An unfinished man was due to premiere at The Yard Theatre in April 2020.

We caught up with Travis and Dipo ahead of their upcoming collaboration with Paines Plough for the project The Place I Call Home. This international project sees plays written in a pen pal format between a playwright based in the UK and a playwright based in another locked down country. While Alabanza is paired with Polish playwright Magda Węgrzyn, Baruwa-Etti is paired with German playwright Calle Fuhr.

Hey, Travis and Dipo the last couple of months have seen the theatre world almost entirely shut down. How have you both found working during this time?

Travis: It depends. Each month changed. I took three months away from pressuring myself to produce anything. I just wanted to catch up with friends, be a good pal and community member. Work has become not the focus or main thing I think of each day…

Dipo: Writing for me has always been about diving into other worlds, so I’ve actually found myself doing a lot more of it and playing about with how I’m telling stories (i.e. genre, form, etc.), but it’s also been difficult because I’m generating all this material and don’t know what will ever see the light of day! But I try not to concern myself with that and focus on just telling stories I want to see, even if they end up being for my eyes only.

Travis, congratulations on your hit-show Burgerz – I read in another interview that you have bookings until 2022! Burgerz is particularly unique in its flipping of the performer/spectator dynamic, forcing the audience out of complacency. Have you found performance art to be a particularly productive way to discuss issues surrounding trans or gender non-conforming identities?

Thank you! We had lots of tour dates still to go for Burgerz, but obviously who knows what will happen now. But Yes, still Burgerz dates in the diary – I feel very lucky and happy to have created a show in 2018 that still has place to be seen. I love that show.  I think performance is a great way to discuss issues full stop. I think the stage is where we go to be honest. It is where we can tell things that the outside world isn’t ready to hear yet.

Travis, in a video for Pink News you’ve discussed how people claim this is a moment of trans visibility but what you want is a moment of trans invisibility. What’s your opinion on hit TV shows like POSE that have introduced the mainstream public to a cast of talented trans actors?

POSE is a celebration of what can happen when we cast trans people in our own stories. It’s an act of archiving and it shows there is an appetite for our work to exist. I think what I mean from the phrase trans invisibility, is that I wish we could choose whether we were visible. I long and hope for the UK to catch up in terms of black and brown trans representation as it can feel very lonely within our industry.  Aside from TV, Film, music posters, and magazines – trans people face visibility when they walk out the door. We know what it is like to be stared at, gawked at, shouted at, that visibility is not a choice. I want visibility to be consensual. Where we can opt into it, rather than learn how to navigate it. 

Travis, Black Lives Matter protests across the country – including a toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in your hometown Bristol – has put additional pressure on theatre to make real change in their representation and support of black communities. You’ve spoken previously about how decolonisation also requires a decolonisation of gender – do you think theatres can address this in any particular way?

I think that everyone, whatever industry, has a responsibility to look at what they can do. I think theatre can and needs to continue the work of understanding what do we count as theatre and why? In our classifications what and who are we leaving out? I say this time and time again, that the best theatre I see is in the clubs, in the cabaret bars, from the queens, the live artists. But where and what is the support for them? How can buildings and institutions broaden who and what they see as theatrical, to change who gets support and resources?  I think that will change who we see come through our doors and on our stages.  

Dipo, you’ve got an impressive list of credits, writing for stage, film, and even your own poetry. Despite the variety of mediums, is there any particular theme or idea, or desire that drives the work you create?

I really just want to keep telling stories that centre around Black British protagonists. I could write 50 plays, 50 films, 50 poems, and 500 hours of television and still have more stories to tell about that experience. I want to explore those characters’ lives in dramas, tragedies, comedies, sci-fiction, thrillers, etc. I want Black audiences to feel there’s always something out there for them in their preferred medium. I don’t put pressure on myself to have to fulfil the needs of all Black audiences, because that’s an impossible task, but I know the variety I want and that’s what drives me to keep creating.

Dipo, your debut play, An unfinished man, explores masculinity and mental health by questioning whether the unemployment of a Nigerian man living in London is on account of witchcraft or systemic racism. Do you think that there is enough theatre being created that explores black masculinity?

There isn’t enough theatre being created that explores Blackness in general, so the pool of plays that explore Black masculinity specifically is very small too, but they do exist. For example, many August Wilson, Tarell Alvin McCraney, or Wole Soyinka plays do, whether explicitly or not. And then focusing on Black British plays, there are the works of Roy Williams, Kwame Kwei-Armah, etc. And those are just the men that have written about it. Still, I don’t think it’s enough. Black masculinity is a fascinating subject with so many nuances and entry points, that I do think there needs to be more commissioned and programmed, especially from new and emerging writers who may have completely different perspectives on the subject.

Dipo, An unfinished man was due to premiere at The Yard Theatre in April this year. Do you have any idea when audiences might be able to catch it again?

I can’t say for sure when audiences might be able to catch An unfinished man, mostly because covid doesn’t care about our schedules, but discussions are still fervent and hopefully will be more concrete soon.

So, let’s talk about The Place I Call Home. What was it like being paired and working with a playwright overseas?

Travis: I loved it! What an interesting concept. This was written back in early summer, and at that point, I was still dusting off my writing hands after a really intense few months. So I think to be paired is such a nice way in. It’s always lovely to meet new writers, and I love how our work bounces from each other.

Dipo: Anxiety-inducing at first, because I’m so used to writing by myself and not talking to anyone as I do that, but as soon as I met Calle (my co-writer) I felt confident and excited by the idea. We were on very similar pages and it was great to bounce ideas around with someone who had a very different view of what theatre was, based on how the medium is viewed in the UK vs. Germany and seeing how that reshaped our approach to the story.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve both been creating for The Place I Call Home?

Travis: My work is called In Tandem. I had written the script from bed. It was in the time where all we could see was whoever we lived with, and whoever we zoomed. I was missing my mother. I was trying to get past Black squares on Instagram to find what else I was thinking. I was overwhelmed. In Tandem I think is a reflection of me trying to find normality, every day, the mundane, but the outside world keeps creeping in. 

Dipo: Calle and I created six 5-minute episodes under the title of A Brief History of Struggle. It focuses on small conversations that happen against the backdrop of major events, whether England winning the world cup and a couple questioning whether such victories give a country false hopes, or women getting the vote and exploring how that could create a wider generational divide. But we wanted them to feel like snippets of conversations you may just overhear while walking through the park one day.

The Place I Call Home digital festival spans from 19th October-7th November, with Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s A Brief History of Struggle showing from 19th-24th October and will be available to watch again on the 2nd November to the 7th November. Travis Alabanza’s In Tandem showing from 27th-29th October.

Book your tickets and find out more about all the shows, workshops, and conversations featuring in the festival here.


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