BWW Interview: Shakina Nayfak on MANIFEST PUSSY at Joe's Pub
Shakina Nayfack is a woman blessed with an abundance of talents. She enjoys success as a director, writer, performer, producer, and social activist. Recently she created the critically-acclaimed role of Ava in the Transparent's Musical Finale. She is beloved by fans for her role as Lola on Hulu's Difficult People and has premiered three solo shows at Joe's Pub to sold-out houses. On Saturday, November 9th she brings her one woman show Manifest Pussy back to Joe's Pub. Described as a rock concert/standup special/ritual sacrifice" the show tells the story of Shakina's journey to Thailand for gender confirmation surgery in 2014.
Recently, I spoke with Shakina by phone and email about Manifest Pussy's Revival Tour, Transparent's Musical Finale, her work to expand and diversify the musical theater canon and more.
This interview has been edited for space and content
Can you tell me how Manifest Pussy came into being?
It started because I had two solo shows that I had created, one for my gender confirmation surgery and one about gender confirmation surgery, and then a couple of years ago in 2016 when North Carolina passed HB2 the Bathroom bill, the first one I was like, oh, this is the time to hit the road and go be a one woman USO show and entertain the troops down there. The folks who were facing discrimination. And so I put the two shows together, and that's how manifest for the Manifest Pussy was born.
This is the Manifest Pussy Revival Tour. What's new in this iteration of the show? Has anything changed?
Well, the show is based on my life and I keep living so I keep updating the show with things as I'm learning about my body and my faith and my identity. I think that the storytelling has gotten deeper and richer in this version and the songs are the same, but there are new arrangements to some of them. And the hope is that these shows in L.A. and New York are just the beginning of a larger tour and hopefully I can do something along the lines of what I did in North Carolina, but really across the country.
Manifest Pussy arose as an urgent response to deliver joy and reflection to a people in crisis. There was a calling for the show and so we brought it forth. The revival I'm speaking of is that same sort of spirit of disruption and offering. The show is irreverent and life-saving, and for both of those reasons I feel called to take it back out into the world, and hopefully back on the road! My vision is a big top church revival through the Heartland with our own tent and rigging and trans road crew!
Can you tell me a little bit about some of the song writers whose works are featured in your show?
I think folks would know the most recognizable names, perhaps are Joe Iconis, who's the writer of Be More Chill and many other shows. He wrote a song for me called Him Today, Gone Tomorrow that's a really great centerpiece of the show. Michael R. Jackson, who wrote A Strange Loop, has a song in the show called Last Night in Bangkok, which is sort of about some of the more extravagant exploits I undertook before my surgery. Shana Taub and I collaborated on a tune toward the end of the show. Zoe Sarnak and I collaborated on a song-she's working on the Empire Records Broadway adaptation.
Those are probably the four most well-known songwriters. Julianne Wick Davis, who wrote Southern Comfort and Trevor has two songs in the show that are really, really lovely songs: one about the first time I wore a dress when I was just a child and then one about the first time I took a shower after my gender confirmation surgery. They're really lovely bookends to one another. All the songs were written either in collaboration with me-some of them I wrote lyrics for, others the composers wrote music and lyrics, but they were either based off a short story I had written or a poem I had written, or some lengthy conversations we had about the specific moment in the show and in my life.
What do you want audiences to take away from Manifest Pussy?
That's a great question. I think what I hope people walk away from is-I hope they take away a renewed sense of their own courage to go be the most badass version of themselves.
You mentioned that you took Manifest Pussy to North Carolina to protest HB2. As part of your activism you documented your usage of men's bathrooms. Can you tell me about the response you received from that campaign and the visibility generated to this issue?
Yes, I think that the protest tour started as something really irreverent because the idea of forcing trans people to use the bathroom that match the gender they were assigned at birth is actually so ridiculous when you visualize it and you imagine grown women and men forced to use the opposite gender restroom. So it started out like really silly and just taking these photos as I went to these towns.
But then the thing that was really powerful and crazy is that after the first night of the tour is when the Pulse Nightclub shooting happened in Orlando and so the tone of the tour changed completely and it basically became a vigil every night while I was there sharing my story. I think the queer community and the ally community in every place that we went from that point on was just seeking a way to come together so there was a lot of holding space for grief and mourning and anger. It went from being an irreverent protest tour to really being, like I said, like a USO tour really trying to bring joy to people who were in a lot of pain.
You crowdfunded your gender confirmation surgery in 2014. How has access to gender affirming care and gender confirmation surgery changed in the years since your gender confirmation?
It's still a challenge for a lot of people but we are seeing progress in that certain insurance companies are starting to cover gender affirming procedures. Companies are starting to support their employees who transition. Schools are starting to have resources. Prisons are starting to have more resources. But it's a long uphill fight. Just because we made some progress on the awareness and some progress on the resources doesn't mean that all people are receiving the care they should get. In fact, it's far from it.
Recently you created the role of Eva for the series finale of Transparent, Transparent: The Musical. During its run, the show received some criticism for casting a cis man, Jeffrey Tambor, as lead character Moira. How does it feel to play such a pivotal role in the show's epilogue, not only as Eva but also as a writer and producer for the finale?
Well, you know, it was a huge honor first of all. There also was a great sense of responsibility to right some wrongs of the past and so to step into those shoes. It felt like an act of restitution for the trans community. It felt like a reclamation and a healing and I think that what's so special about the movie is that we were able to create something bold and ridiculous and fun and heart-wrenching out of the ashes of such a terrible event, which was like the collapse of the show's inner family.
That show ended with a sensational number about a Joy-acaust. What brings you joy?
That's a great question, too. I love that. What brings me Joy?
Singing, sharing, intimacy with friends and loved ones, swimming, my dog Luna, Broadway musicals. Also liberation and social justice.
Awesome. What new projects are you currently excited to be working on?
Well, right now I'm doing development on a couple of really cool things. I have a play that I'm working on that's like a great American play called Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club. That is a story about my time in Thailand as well but it incorporates the larger community of folks that I ended up meeting and going through confirmation with. I'm also working on a sitcom pilot that I'm really excited to be sharing with folks. I'm in development with SMAC. That's Michael Strayhorn's company out in L.A.
You always hope as a multi-hyphenate artist that the good you put out into the universe through your work will beget more opportunity and so I find myself now in that place taking stock of what this year has been with Transparent and with Manifest Pussy and I'm looking forward to 2020 with a lot of hope and possibility.
You founded the Musical Theater Factory. It's become an important launchpad for the works of many creators. What are some of the successes you've had over the years that you take the most pride in?
Well, certainly, A Strange Loop, right now, the jewel in the crown of Musical Theater Factory is a show that Michael had really left in the dust before brushing it off and bringing it to the factory at the very, very onset of when MTF got together so that show had been with us from the first moment the first writers group meeting we ever had. I feel a deep sense of connection not only to him, but to all the artists that have worked on the show, because we really kind of grew up together. Also, I'm really excited by Nikko Benson & Benjamin Halstead piece Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat, which premiered at Adirondak Theater Festival in 2018 and is now back in development again--it's a super exciting show. There's also Christopher Staskel and Ben Bonnema's ONE WAY that just was at NAMT and also had a concert at the Kennedy Center just this past month and that's another piece that started at Musical Theater Factory. The thing actually that I'm most proud of, though, beyond specific shows is that we created these roundtables for composers of color and for women and trans identified writers. While the shows that are percolating in those writers groups haven't yet found production, they're still in the works.
There are incredible artists making incredible projects from the ground up because they found a place where they didn't have to waste time defining their existence. They could just get in and create and that is really huge when you think about how the factory is trying to not only contribute to the canon of musical theater, but also diversify that canon and we're seeing the work that comes out of MTF really represent the world we live in today in a way that Broadway hasn't been able to keep up with.
Your director for Manifest Manpower, Mei Anne Teo, just took on the role of artistic director of Musical Theater Factory. How does it feel to pass on the artistic reigns?
I founded MTF when I founded myself, basically. It was so tied up in my crowdfunding campaign for my gender confirmation and my medical transition. MTF is also an abbreviation for Male-to-Female. It's kind of like a tongue in cheek synthesis of everything I was going through.
We got to a point when my work as a performer started to compete with my work as artistic director and I had to make a really hard choice: do I want to continue nurturing all these voices of all these artists? Or do I want to take a risk and see what happens if I throw myself headlong into performance and that was something I had withheld from myself for so long as a trans woman who had yet to transition. I just feel like I'm making up for lost time now with that. It feels very freeing to devote myself to my own work. And I'm so grateful that Mei Ann appeared and was able to take the reins of Musical Theater Factory and continue and build on my vision and the vision of the founding artists to create something that is going to be around for a long time.
It's beautiful to be in the position of looking back at what I made. And seeing that it's still giving new life to the community today.
That is beautiful. Earlier you mentioned reclaiming roles. If you could reclaim any role out there on stage or screen that's been played by a cis person, which would it be?
Wow, well I think Judy Davis and Dan Collins' musical adaptation of Southern Comfort, which played at The Public a few years ago, but is also a show that I produced in a workshop at Barrington Stage Company when I was the associate producer there.
There is a role the character Lola Cola and I just had the opportunity to sing one of her songs at a NAMT Concert, the 46th minute concert that they just did last week and that felt so powerful and rich to sort of step into that role after having worked alongside that show in years past and seeing it in a different incarnation. So I would love the opportunity to see that show produced again and to play that part and work with a team to really center trans voices in a way that they weren't able to do before. That is keenly a goal of mine.
Tickets for Manifest Pussy are available Here
Learn more about Shakina on her Website
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @shakeenz
Photo Credits: Lauren Peterson, Amazon Studios