Lisa Stephen Friday works the Keegan stage solo performing her moving rock musical memoir Trans Am (★★★★☆), but she’s not up there alone. The singer-songwriter and former frontwoman for glam rock band Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday also has her trusty guitar and eight of the band’s tunes, meaningfully repurposed as passionate markers of her own personal experience. And she has a compelling life story, hammered into a tart, eloquent script detailing her trans journey from singing in Christian youth choir in Fayetteville, Georgia, to punk rock diva riding high on the queercore scene of New York City in the early 2000s.
Also, besides wielding tremendous energy and stage presence — on top of her fierce denim jumpsuit and era-appropriate red Vans sneakers — Friday has a crew behind her, led by director Fred Berman, working in perfect pitch with the material. Of course, they’ve had time to calibrate for this live world premiere production. Berman, who for six years played drums in Girl Friday, also directed Keegan’s 2020 virtual production of Trans Am. Of the many webcast stage shows and events that got us through that long lockdown winter, virtual Trans Am‘s qualities translated better than most to the hybrid presentation.
Still, the show is better live onstage. Better that way to take in Friday’s impressive strumming on numbers like “Hey Man,” and throughout the entire 90-minute runtime, as she adds instrumental score to her narration and performance while roaming Matthew J. Keenan’s rock club-inspired set. One instant, she might leap onto one of the equipment cases strewn around the stage to punctuate a lyric with a pose. Or she’ll light up in reverie at images dancing across the rows of video screens, hung behind her like windows casting a view into her past.
Seemingly at will, Friday and Berman reshape the space around her, with a healthy assist from John D. Alexander’s nimble lighting. Describing moments of stark vulnerability — like coming out as trans to her family, only to be ambushed with an intervention and plans for conversion therapy — Friday conveys her truth with searing immediacy. There’s no space between her and the audience, as she connects directly to each and every compassionate listener.
Conversely, for those larger-than-life locales and characters of her recollections, the space seems to expand accordingly, whether evoking the graffitied walls of CBGB’s, or the club dressing room/janitor’s closet where Friday first met trailblazing trans punk rocker Jayne County. The theater, with a rapt crowd inside it, can feel as big or as intimate as the show requires it to be, a rare quality. Although not every transition flows smoothly, there are clever juxtapositions between songs and speeches, enhanced by an atmosphere that ranges from concert to confessional.
At all times, Friday ably holds the center with an air of honesty and earned wisdom, especially while retracing her struggles with alcohol, or transmitting the pure joy of finding true love. Of course, she had to find herself first, or at least figure out where to start looking. Baring her metaphorical wounds, along with the mistakes and triumphs that led her to this stage, Friday demonstrates the power of owning your story and building on it, to create art and community, and maybe even change. Don’t give in to the pain, she insists on “Don’t Get Bitter,” or you’ll come undone: “Ya gotta get it all out, or it’ll never go away.”
Trans Am runs through Feb. 26 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $60. Visit www.keegantheatre.com.
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