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.
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.
Trans Am, written and performed by Lisa Stephen Friday; music by Lisa Jackson & Girl Friday. Directed by Fred Berman; lighting design, John D. Alexander; properties, Cindy Landrum Jacobs; associate lighting designer, Alberto Segarra; associate projections designer, Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor; sound engineer, Phoenix Henkle. About 90 minutes. $50-$60. Through Feb. 26 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. keegantheatre.com.