Keegan Theater holds virtual productions that centralize race and transgender topics
Review of Keegan Theater’s productions of ‘Trans Am’ and ‘From Gumbo to Mumbo’
The Keegan Theater’s virtual productions of “Trans Am” and “From Gumbo to Mumbo” ran from Nov. 12 until Nov. 29. “Trans Am” focused on LGBTQ+ rights, and “From Gumbo to Mumbo” explored race relations in the United States in a mostly personal manner, accompanied by expressive and powerfully emotional music.
“Trans Am” is a rock musical and a solo act featuring Lisa Stephen Friday, a real-life rock star who formed a group called Lisa Jackson and Girl Friday. The play focuses on Friday’s life story as she transitioned and overcame the many challenges she faced from her childhood.
Friday told the audience of her story accompanied by her acoustic guitar. She performed music by Lisa Jackson and Girl Friday after she shared specific experiences. When Friday recalled her experience of coming out as a transgender woman, it was particularly haunting.
“You know how they say how people should treat us? I didn’t know how to tell my family how to treat me,” Friday said during her performance when recounting her coming out experience.
Friday was raised in a conservative family in Fayetteville, Ga. She expressed frustration early in her performance about the binary social lens in which she grew up. Even when she came out in 2004, there was not the vocabulary that we use today to describe transgender or non-binary individuals.
Friday also recounted her experience dealing with her family’s negative perception of her as a drag queen. This perception emerged when she was playing music with her group at the Parkside Lounge in New York City. She collaborated with people such as influential trans rocker Jayne County at the time.
In an interview with Metro Weekly magazine, Friday said, “Unless you have a trans person in your life, or you’re an extremely aware person, you don’t know what that struggle is.”
She also pointed out that anyone who is not white, heterosexual and Christian is incredibly vulnerable and that transgender people are especially vulnerable to discrimination and prejudicial attacks. In “Trans Am,” Friday uses her own experience of coming out as a transgender woman to talk about how alone transgender people are when they transition.
“And there I stood. Silent. Shamed. Judged. Completely alone,” Friday said during her performance.
“From Gumbo to Mumbo” is a New Orleans-based play discussing race-related problems in the U.S. The play explores what it means to be “authentic” in American culture and politics and it reflects on the search for love and happiness.
The play features two local actors, Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown. Anderson is a former science teacher who founded Spit Dat, an open mic in Washington, and Lawson-Brown is a hip-hop artist.
The play opens with New Orleanian music and a Family Feud spoof. The stage background, lighting and each actor’s colorful outfit reflected New Orleans culture. At the beginning of the play, Anderson’s outfit stood out particularly with a Zion Williamson New Orleans Pelicans jersey and multi-colored necklaces.
Anderson or Brown addressed race relations in their monologues, while footage of anti-Vietnam War protests and race riots in the 1960s and today was shown on a series of small TV screens. The discussion then shifted to police brutality and instances where unarmed, innocent Black men were shot and killed by police because of the color of their skin.
Further imagery of candlelight vigils with faces of Black men and women killed by police showed the many people who died senselessly because of police brutality, while also keeping these names alive.
Another powerful visual was Brown’s T-shirt, which showed names of police brutality victims. The combination of rap, hip-hop, poetry, New Orleans culture and visuals made “From Gumbo to Mumbo” an effective play for understanding the times we live in today.
The play was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award.