In the runup to her autobiographical show Trans Am, developed and now playing at DC’s Keegan Theatre, Lisa Stephen Friday has been the subject of a spate of recent interviews, including here at DCTMA, Broadway World, and The Washington Blade. That’s fitting: “a trans person telling a trans story,” as Friday said in her Blade interview, is important. Telling that story well, at a time when trans people are subject to rampant misunderstanding and hostility — often politically motivated — is essential.
Friday tells it well. More than anything, Trans Am is a vehicle for her to tell the stories of the moments of her life: of a little boy trying on a skirt, of being fascinated by MTV videos by Freddie Mercury and others, of leaving a Georgia family who didn’t understand for the wilder shores of New York City, of drag queens who accepted and encouraged her, of leading a queer band at the center of the rock and party scenes in New York City during the first decade of the century, of addiction and recovery, of love and loss. The need for transformation is a human universal: Friday’s stories are of one transformation after another that she undergoes, on her way to becoming today a woman who knows who she is.
She is a compelling storyteller, not least because she is a fine actor. She tells of living a life always on the cusp of change, participating in a character arc the shape and direction of which she doesn’t know at the time. There are nicely delineated differences in her portrayals of who she is at various points along that still incomplete arc, often matters of subtle shades of physicality and affect. Sometimes the contrasts are more stark. Her alcohol-fueled, guitar-smashing breakdown during a band performance is followed closely by a sweet, quiet recollection of falling in love.
There are flashes of humor as well. Friday does a physically and vocally hilarious impersonation of a mentor, the always insistently outrageous Jayne County. She tells of once having to choose between using available funds for “a sports car or tits.” No spoilers here about the outcome.
Trans Am is often labeled a “rock musical.” Well, sort of, though not in quite the same sense as Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, or Spring Awakening. Nor is Trans Am a jukebox musical of the Jersey Boys type. There are rock songs, to be sure. Friday, playing her acoustic guitar, performs several of the songs from her days with her New York–based band, Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday. She doesn’t appear to have lost a step since the songs were new, and her performances of numbers like “Beautiful Freak,” “Hey Man,” “Mess,” “Don’t Get Bitter,” and “Sober and Insane” are downright charismatic.
Friday uses the songs much as a very different, but also fabulous, woman, Elaine Stritch, used Broadway numbers in her autobiographical show, At Liberty, which is the closest parallel to Trans Am that comes to mind, albeit from a late-career rather than mid-career vantage point. The songs illustrate what the storyteller was performing or experiencing at a given time, rather than being plot elements in a book show.
Friday’s friend and one-time bandmate, Fred Berman, directed the production and helped Friday shape the material. His work with Friday on movement around the stage avoids any tendency for the storytelling to become physically static.
Matthew J. Keenan’s set design features 11 video screens hung at various angles, which play, in unison, Jeremy Bennett’s projections, which sometimes provide background atmosphere, sometimes brief glimpses of people mentioned in Friday’s story (e.g., Friday herself, Jayne County), and other times remain blank. The set otherwise consists of a couple of theatrical trunks and Friday’s guitar stand, allowing plenty of room for movement during the stories and songs.
Friday wears a blue denim jumpsuit throughout, with red shoes. It fits well all the situations and periods in the show while avoiding interruptions that might be needed for costume changes.
Beyond Friday’s vocal and acting abilities, and the dramatic force of her stories, Trans Am makes a very serious point about the necessity of societal support for transgender people. In her DCTMA interview, Friday emphasized one aspect of that support, the gravity of which deeply affects people I know personally:
Medical transition and gender-affirming health care should not be a luxury. In this country, you could smoke cigarettes your entire life and die of lung cancer, and your insurance company will pay for your hospital bills. You could be born a trans person, and need medical intervention, life-affirming medical services, yet it is considered a cosmetic procedure. This person will struggle their entire life with imposter syndrome and [gender] dysphoria, simply because our society does not believe that their needs are valid. It’s a human rights crime.
Making trans lives vividly visible, telling stories about people whose needs are no less valid than those of human beings generally, is a way of contending against that crime, a way of affirming publicly how much trans lives matter. In addition to the show’s theatrical merits, that makes Trans Am a major success for Friday and for Keegan.
Running Time: One hour 35 minutes with no intermission.
Trans Am plays through February 26, 2022, with evening performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8:00 pm and matinees on Sundays at 3:00 pm. at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, Washington DC. For tickets ($65), call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.
COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. For the Keegan Theatre’s complete policies and procedures around keeping patrons, artists, and staff safe and healthy this season, visit their Health & Safety page.
Lisa Stephen Friday spills the T on ‘Trans Am,’ her rock musical at Keegan (interview by Sophia Howes)
Review of the 2020 digital production of Trans Am by Sophia Howes