Faeries on Fire: Travis Alabanza’s Sound of the Underground

Travis Alabanza is an arsonist. Whatever they do, whichever space they’re in, they wield their pen as flamethrower, setting pages, stages and hearts alight. Their role as arsonist, though, is not one of wanton destruction, but destruction with a noble cause: the illumination of art as a creative and political act. 

The Royal Court Theatre is the latest stage to be so ennobled by Travis. Sound of the Underground, co-created with Debbie Hannan, is a captivating homage to the queer nightlife that shaped Travis into the stage-blazing dynamo they have become, and issues an urgent warning about the consequences of LGBTQ assimilation into the dominant and ravaging order of our time. 

There is much to praise about Sound of the Underground. The acting and performances of CHIYO, Lilly SnatchDragon, Ms Sharon Le Grand, Mwice Kavindele (as Sadie Sinner the Songbird), Rhys Hollis (as Rhys’ Pieces), Sue Gives A Fuck, Tammy Reynolds (as Midgitte Bardot) and Wet Mess do nothing less than activate and enliven the audience – and each performer deserves close study. One-by-one, they offer their own masterclass; all together, they evidence the ensorcelling power of creatives rallied around a collective cause. In doing so, they honour the hallowed stage of the Royal Court, whose plays are performed on stage and taught in classrooms across the globe. 

There is, as always, the comedy, cheek and sass of it all – each elemental in anything fortunate enough to have Travis’ name emblazoned upon it. But the most praiseworthy offering from Sound of the Underground is how it develops, delivers and detonates its incisive critique of the price underground queer performers have been forced to pay for “our” “inclusion”. Utilising RuPaul’s Drag Race, Sound of the Underground challenges the commodification of drag performance, showing how the mainstreaming of an important and life-giving art form has helped sustain the ongoing violence of dispossession and displacement taking place in vulnerable LGBTQ communities and venues in the so-called West. 

A legacy of single-issue gay politics, RuPaul’s Drag Race is an appropriate vehicle for this critique. In the sanitising and keening effort to enshrine gay marriage rights, LGBTQ people of colour, trans people, sex workers and the homeless (among many others) – and the issues that truly impacted their lives – were jettisoned to make gay marriage more palatable. It worked, and while wealthy white gays and lesbians celebrated their economic equality with their heterosexual comrades, those who were left behind have stayed behind, save for the select anointing of a few to celebrity-level visibility. Sound of the Underground pays tribute to those left behind: namely, the artists, performers and creatives who continue to challenge the consumptive and tokenising thrust of mainstream LGBTQ assimilation. 

Gay marriage is an enduring heuristic for the pitfalls of single-issue politics: we know that visibility and representation on their own are not enough; that juridical protections for some certainly don’t ensure safety for all, and that inclusion of a few comes at a great cost to many – a cost borne, over again and always, by those resisting the normative demands of the time. By platforming the performers and art form impacted by the historical, political and emotional ramifications of our commodification, Sound of the Underground asks the audience an important question: Can we be honest enough to see ourselves implicated? 

The play also does what Toni Morrison said art should do: “[it] reminds us that we belong here”, but art itself cannot intervene in the violence our communities face; it can only attempt to provoke its interruption. Whether glass-encased paintings are “defaced” or young people tie themselves to planes, art is only as provocative as the action it inspires. I’m not sure Travis intends to be provocative; they just tell the truth, but if the truth is provocative to those engulfed in Travis’ flames, a great deal is revealed about their proximity to that truth.  

Go experience Sound of the Underground. Travis employs the chaotic and the spectacular to remind us that we cannot afford performance as entertainment alone. After all, art without conscience or consequence is merely spectacle.

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