Washington Post Review: TRANS AM

TRANS AM by Lisa Stephen Friday, featuring the music of Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday, directed by Fred Berman. Photo: Cameron Whitman Photography
Keegan’s ‘Trans Am’ is an absorbing autobiographical show of transgender experience, enhanced by a rock score
Production is the in-person premiere for musician/actor Lisa Stephen Friday’s solo show

The grass stains on the knees of a small boy who wishes he were wearing a skirt. The cutting remark of a pharmacist asked to fill prescriptions. A janitor’s closet that doubles as a dressing room at a New York juke joint.

Vivid details anchor the narrative in “Trans Am,” Lisa Stephen Friday’s absorbing, rock-scored solo show, now receiving its in-person world premiere at the Keegan Theatre (the company produced an online version in 2020). The autobiographical tale of transgender experience and the quest for personal fulfillment showcases Friday’s magnetism as a performer — a quality you might expect from the artist who fronted Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday, a fixture of the early 2000s rock scene. But “Trans Am” also manifests Friday’s writing skills, evident in the details that register sharply through most of the production, directed by her sometime bandmate Fred Berman.

Dressed in a blue jumpsuit and sneakers, with a blond bob, Friday is an assured and engaging presence as she relates now-funny, now-wrenching life stories, often speaking while strumming her guitar. That guitar also is her accompaniment on songs from the Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday repertoire. Ranging sonically along a spectrum from punk to glam-rock to singer-songwriter confessional, the music entwines movingly with the narrative, as when the wistful yet upbeat “Beautiful Freak” reinforces her account of a Georgia childhood full of artistic epiphanies and dawning questions about identity.

The show goes on to recount not only Friday’s gender transition, but also such professional milestones as acting gigs; her band’s surging popularity in and beyond New York; and an almost career-ending personal meltdown. In a particularly delightful section, she adopts a husky voice and stooped swagger to portray Jayne County, a groundbreaking and colorful transgender rocker who championed Friday’s band.

Adding rock-concert energy is the set, whose screen-inlaid backdrop panels churn with telling images of the times Friday has lived through. (Matthew J. Keenan designed the set; Jeremy Bennett, the projections.) For instance, snippets of MTV footage reinforce how that music-video channel exposed a young Friday not only to pop music, but also — through the idiosyncratic artists it showcased — to the possibilities for creating a distinctive public persona.

“Trans Am” loses some of its sharpness at the end, as Friday talks about a failed relationship in slightly bland terms, before wrapping up with a striking memory that feels grafted in. But it’s early days for this show, which originated in Keegan’s new-work incubator, the Boiler Room Series. Refinements are possible. Even now, thanks in part to those vivid details, you leave with a bracing awareness that the “Am” in the title is both an affirmative first-person verb and also shorthand for a pan-out view of America.