Transgender teen plays role of his life in drama set for Grand Opera House

As young people from social inclusion organisation Action Ability Belfast prepare to bring sexuality, depression, bullying and racism to the stage, a Belfast transgender teen tells Gail Bell why he needed to change the script

Jo Jo McChesney is one a cast of 23 taking to the stage in Action Ability's Stay'n Alive...So I Am at the Grand Opera House in Belfast Picture: Mal McCann

A TRANSGENDER teen "born in the wrong body" is telling his 'coming out' story in a hard-hitting musical drama being staged at Belfast's Grand Opera House next week.

Jo Jo McChesney (19) from Belfast is one in a cast of 23 taking to the stage in Action Ability's Stay'n Alive...So I Am featuring special guests, The Motown Sensations.

It has proved something of a timely panacea for the teenager who only told his parents he was transgender last year. Since then, he has received their full support and feels a burden has been lifted after spending most of his childhood and adolescence struggling with mental health issues arising from feelings of isolation and abuse he suffered as a young gay person growing up in Belfast.

"For a long while, my parents knew I was gay but I only told them I was transgender when I was 18," he says. "I felt I wasn't 'myself' for a long while – basically, all my life I have wanted to be a girl.

"I think even when I was very young, around about four, I wanted to dress in girl's clothes. I was in the wrong body and it was a struggle. I went through a period of eight months of self-harming because of the way I felt inside and not being able to do anything about it.

Jo Jo McChesney with Joe McNally, musical director of Stay'n Alive and senior project worker with Action Ability, based in west Belfast Picture Mal McCann

"My message is simply this: don't be afraid to be who you are and don't be afraid to tell your parents or tell someone who can help you deal with it all. If taking part in this show and playing the real me and bringing my story to life on stage helps one person to do just that, then it will be worth it."

Despite the inner torment, Jo Jo's story, along with the other real-life stories from fellow members of the cast, is ultimately an uplifting one says Joe McNally, musical director of Stay'n Alive and senior project worker with Action Ability Belfast, based at the Springfield Road.

"This is our fourth show in the Grand Opera House but the first time that personal stories take centre stage," he says. "It has been a bold, brave move and focuses on the issues that have affected individual cast members and how they have managed to overcome them.

"In Jo Jo's case, he came to us halfway through the process and said, 'I need to talk to you; we need to change the script'.

"From being portrayed as a young, openly gay person, he said he needed to talk about being transgender, so all that is included in the production.

Jo Jo McChesney Picture: Mal McCann

"As well as gender identity, issues include depression, cyber-bullying and racism as experienced by 20-year-old Steffy Cyriac who was born in Kuwait but moved to Northern Ireland in 2005.

"Steffy wanted to enhance the positive perception of ethnic minorities here and portray a message of hope to anyone in a similar situation."

The concept idea for Stay'n Alive stemmed from another young member of Ability Action, 17-year-old Aine McNiece, who had gone through a period of self-harming and told Joe she "wouldn't mind talking about it" for the sake of other young people.

"Aine said she wanted to send a message that there was light at the end of tunnel, so we began wondering if and how we might include others, who have also triumphed over serious difficulties in their lives and bring their collective story to the stage," Joe explains.

"But the problem then was how to show truthful resolution in each of the stories, while still creating a show that was also humorous and entertaining to watch. I think the young people got over that hurdle themselves quite naturally by injecting the script with their own sense of humour."

Levity is also added with the addition of well-known dance numbers from The Mowtown Sensations who have supported the charity's previous performances and whose members hail from Belfast, Dublin and England.

"The show is an emotional roller coaster, a bit of a real-life Belfast soap opera, sung to the tune of great disco and rock music from the 70s and 80s with songs from the Bee Gees, Kool and the Gang, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi and others," Joe adds.

Joe McNally, musical director of Stay'n Alive and senior project worker with Action Ability, based in west Belfast Picture: Mal McCann

"It is full of fun, tears and laughter, but the underlying aim is to raise understanding and awareness of some of the most traumatic and complex issues affecting the lives of many of our young people today.

"If one person in the audience goes home, opens up about their problems, just like the cast have bared their own souls on stage, and seeks help, then our job is done."

:: Stay'n Alive...So I Am is on at Belfast Grand Opera House on Friday, May 19 (,
This is Mental Health Awareness Week. For more information see

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