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BWW Review: TRANS AM at The Keegan Theatre


TRANS AM is the autobiographical story of queer rock icon Lisa Stephen Friday, of Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday

BWW Review: TRANS AM at The Keegan Theatre
Lisa Stephen Friday in TRANS AM

If you know nothing about Lisa Stephen Friday's backstory, the concept of The Keegan Theatre's production TRANS AM seems a little close to Hedwig and the Angry Inch: a one-woman show challenging our preconceptions of gender with the help of (really good) rock music. And yet, while those superficial comparisons are certainly true, Lisa's story and journey set her far apart from her fictional counterpart.

TRANS AM is the autobiographical tale of Lisa's life so far - her upbringing in conservative Fayetteville, her rise to fame, her fall from grace, her journey to rebuild, and, most importantly, her path of self-discovery. Lisa shows us what it's like to struggle with an identity when you don't have the vocabulary or worldview to explain it to yourself or others, how to find and build support systems, and how to find the bravery to push forward even when you don't know what the next step is.

Lisa guides us from her early childhood discovery that she enjoyed wearing women's clothing and wanted to identify as a girl to her status as a queer punk rock icon. We learn about how she moved to New York, worked as an actor and singer, and eventually came out - first by embracing drag, then by embracing her transgender identity. We meet, through her tales, her conservative family, her partners, her mentors, and her band, Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday. We see how her band rose to prominence, the struggles they still faced, and how her own private demons played a role in their success and dissolution. And, through it all, we learn what it's like to balance the life of a rock star with the realities of being transgender in America.

BWW Review: TRANS AM at The Keegan Theatre
Lisa Stephen Friday in TRANS AM

It's not that Lisa's story is one of pure triumph - there are many dark moments, and her story is far from over. But this particular telling comes from a vantage point of the wisdom Lisa has gained over the years, one that allows her to recognize her dark moments with clarity, to be forgiving to herself while still repentant to those who were affected by her actions. But it also allows her to find strength in all she's faced and survived, and to recognize her power and talent as well.

And she is incredibly talented. The show features songs Lisa wrote and performed with Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday at the height of their fame in the New York rock circuit in the early 2000s. The songs are catchy, emotional, and personal; following the performance, I immediately pulled up her music on YouTube so I could listen to it again. But part of what makes Lisa a good songwriter is that she's a good storyteller, and getting to hear her music interwoven with her story makes TRANS AM a particularly poignant experience. Her attention to detail and wonderful turns of phrase are entrancing, and paint powerful images of her memories for the audience. Likewise, Lisa's delivery makes each moment recounted (most notably the plane scene and her band's last road trip and performance) feel as though we're watching them play out in real time. Also, her eye for fashion must be noted as well, since her jumpsuit, earrings, and boots were enviably striking (no costume designer is listed in the program).

Behind the scenes, there's an additional layer of emotion: TRANS AM is directed by Lisa's old bandmate, Fred Berman. Berman's presence is particularly noteworthy after the audience learns about how the band broke up and lost contact for over a decade before reuniting for a performance in 2017; it also speaks to the strength of the foundations Lisa has built over her life, a strength that reverberates through the show itself.

BWW Review: TRANS AM at The Keegan Theatre
Lisa Stephen Friday in TRANS AM

Enhancing Lisa's tale is Matthew J. Keenan's simple, versatile set, which gives her the space to move around and fill the stage with her narrative. Screens provided by Multimedia Designer Jeremy Bennett and Video Engineer Shee Shee Jin allow the audience glimpses of Lisa's past: photos and video clips feature prominently through her songs, giving the audience a clearer image of both where she came from, and what the New York rock scene was like. John Alexander's lighting also contributes to the overall effect, helping convey emotions that words, music, and photos alone can't. The striking lighting in some of the show's darker moments felt particularly profound.

(As an aside, Keenan, Bennett, and Jin's work is also incredibly versatile - the same set is incorporated in the other show in repertory, From Gumbo to Mumbo, yet it feels custom to each performance.)

TRANS AM is a powerful, honest portrayal of a fascinating and gifted woman, and brings a beautiful blend of storytelling and performance to the stage (and our screens). With its compelling story, sensational music, and deep emotionality, TRANS AM is a show that stays with audiences in the best way, and makes you excited to see what Lisa's next steps will be.

Keegan Theatre's Virtual Fall Repertory features From TRANS AM through November 29th. Information on the show and tickets (available at $30/household) can be found on the Keegan Theatre website. Run time is approximately ninety minutes over Keegan Theatre's live stream.

Photography courtesy of Cameron Whitman Photography.

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From This Author Rachael F. Goldberg