At its heart, Trans Am is an autobiographical ode in the style of a rock opera, that draws inspiration from the folk-rock like stereotype of the singer-storyteller.
Lisa Stephen Friday, in her one-woman autobiographical show receiving its world premiere at Keegan Theatre, brings us on a hybrid journey of traditional coming out stories and traditional rise to fame stories, and all the wildness they both entail.
The opening is a fun, nostalgic look into the queer codes hidden in rock and roll and in pop culture, as well as straight up honoring the queer icons that the LGBQT+ community held so dear for so long.
However, in the first 20 minutes of the show, even though we’re rocking along with Friday’s life, not much changes. Her musical conversing about her life story feels like it’s going nowhere because the chords rarely change save for interspersing another musical lick.
It takes 40 minutes for Trans Am to break from the sonic monotony and really hit its stride. But once it does, the show really takes off. Her formerly static energy gives us lovely highs and excellent nuances, and shows us her command of language and strong performance technique. Her physicality is delightful and fun; she moves with all the confidence and bravado of a true rock star, with the vocals to match.
Friday’s vocals are powerful though, and the songs by the NYC band Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday shifted between catchy and uplifting to somber and heartfelt. The problem lay within the audio mixing; when Friday really belted, which she did with admirable aplomb, the audio was simply unable to keep up, and it made us wish desperately that we could be in that theatre with her, soaking up the pure power of her voice.
But ultimately, this is a one person show, so as a result, much of it feels much more “Tell” rather than “Show. Friday does her best to put us directly into the action…but just like we’re watching TV screen projections in the set behind her, we’re just a degree removed, so at times it becomes very easy to check out, no matter how interesting her story is.
Trans Am follows almost a traditional opera structure; Friday strumming out a simple chord progression while she relays her story and trots along the plot. Then she kicks it into high gear with her arias, hitting us with the emotional magnitude of each moment encapsulated by song.
This is a piece that shows great insight; reliving her past self who was unable to speak her truth because she did not have the vocabulary. That alone is such a powerful and universal thing to witness. In a small way, especially for those of us in the queer community, it reminds us to respect the journey of those who came before us and proudly paved the way. Those who walked so we could run.
And to think she came out in 2004. Coming out, depending on where one is, isn’t that much easier in 2020.
The designers had their work cut out for them trying to design for both stage and livestream; it is no easy task. The multimedia projections by Jeremy Bennett kept things visually interesting. It was truly a shame that Trans Am was chosen for a digital performance without the right sound engineering. The audio really suffered, weakening the piece overall. This would’ve been a much more enjoyable piece in person, but kudos all the same to Keegan for trying to make it work in this way, and for prioritizing the safety of their performers, their staff, and their audiences.
I’m excited about the piece because it is queer as hell, and super trans, and therefore it’s the kind of theatre I want to see more of! Friday’s work dives into some lovely, honest vulnerability, and she brings us into her innermost workings and reveals all of her beautiful flaws, making her so very human to us.
The show is not without a strong presence of her white privilege too. “I had the difficult decision of choosing between the tits and the sportscar” and it reminds us again the importance of intersectionality. It’s a great story for cis and straight folx to watch, just for the 101 on queer culture. And one thing this show does beautifully is show that the trans rock star’s journey is a more perilous parallel to the cis rock star’s. (Cis rock stars don’t have to put up with soul crushing transphobia or gender dysphoria, but the drugs, sex, addiction, and mental illness feel painfully similar.)
But at the end of the day, there is something eerily wonderful about hearing her magical voice echo through the empty theatre, which at once invokes the fact that she’s performing in a space that’s home for so many, and reinforces our deep longing to return.
from Keegan Theatre
plays in rep with From Gumbo to Mumbo through November 29, 2020.
Tickets: $30 per household. Details here.
TRANS AM. Starring Lisa Stephen Friday; Direction by Fred Berman. Music by Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday . Set Designer / Master Carpenter Matthew J. Keenan. Lighting Designer John D. Alexander. Sound Designer / Engineer Kaitlyn E.M. Sapp. Multimedia Designer Jeremy Bennett. Video Engineer / Production Assistant Shee Shee Jin. Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Jon Jon Johnson.