BWW Review: SHAKINA NAYFACK: MANIFEST PUSSY at Joe's Pub is a Heroine's Journey
In celebration of Trans Awareness Week, there are many revolutionary spirits who continue to make major waves in the entertainment industry worthy of notice and honor - MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore and Hunter Schafer come to mind - but for Broadway World, it feels most appropriate to celebrate one of our own musical theater Broadway babes, even if she has transitioned to television: the indomitable Shakina Nayfack.
To an uninitiated outsider looking at the brazen and fearless Shakina Nayfack, a proud trans woman dripping with confidence, it might seem she's got it all - and that's not far from the truth.
She is the Founding Artistic Director of the Musical Theatre Factory (MTF) whose pals and alumni are the glittering stars of the next generation of musical theatre on and Off-Broadway (friends and collaborators include Joe Iconis, Michael R. Jackson and Shania Taub, amongst others); gave a TED Talk; was a guest star with producer and writer credits to boot for the series finale of Transparent, envisioned as a musical for which she's being considered for a Best Supporting Actress award; a bonafide Hollywood starlet with strutting down the red carpet with the likes castmate and comrade Judith Light; and currently on tour selling-out prime venues in New York and Los Angeles with a revival of her one-woman show that features songs penned by Nayfack herself and said famous (at least to die-hard musical theatre geeks) friends. She's also got a loving and supportive partner who has seen her through a rollercoaster ride of seemingly sudden successes and intimate awakenings.
But it wasn't always like this. Shakina might appear to be the Prom Queen of the queer musical theatre community and a beacon of what one can achieve and become (she is all that and more), but she wasn't born that way into such privilege, glitz, glamour and effortlessness. She had to (often painfully) claw her way to get where she is, not by stepping on others along the way to achieve her goals of the American Dream, but rather uplifting and blessing all who she encountered like a bold, bald guardian angel while still searching for her own wings. Manifest Pussy, the bicoastal revival tour, that played at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater for one night only on November 9th, is the story of Shakina's genesis and her Heroine's Journey.
Backed by a band consisting of Nikki Horton on guitar, Debbie Tjong on bass, Ann Harris on drums and Jacob Yates as the musical director helming the keys, Shakina bounded on the small stage with the infectious energy of a Rockstar, lighting up the cabaret space and instantly charming the packed house. As a multi-dimensional performer, Shakina has even studied Butoh on top of her more traditional musical theatre acting and singing. She incorporates all of that into her one-woman show and completely commanded the transfixed audience. The new Artistic Director of MTF (Shakina passed the crown when she relocated to L.A. to devote herself completely to performing), Mei Ann Teo, deftly directed the piece which felt tighter, and more well-formed as a show which made it even more impactful than when I first saw it in 2015.
Manifest Pussy is a deeply personal and profound her-story, the story of how Shakina went from a nice Jewish boy growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, dreaming of dressing up in the gossamer gowns that were forbidden to him, to the relentlessly exuberant, terrifically talented, hilarious and kind buxom star of stage and screen. In many ways, it could be compared to the real-life story of John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Shakina uses the hashtag #LikeHedwigButReal) although it has a much happier, more triumphant, slightly less ambiguous ending and contains the excellent use of rock songs to tell an often tormented and transcendent tale of self-discovery on the other side of heartbreak and pain. She has a tattoo across her chest -- backwards so she can see it in the mirror -- that reads, "Lie still on the day of pain, and the day of joy will greet you." The show could pretty well be summed up with that line and it's a recurring theme.
Her almost impossible-to-believe journey contains broken childhood dreams, time spent in a mental institution, late-night musings with a meth-head neighbor, cameos as a character actress in hardcore gay porn, a rebellious elephant, a gang-bang in Bangkok, some tragic losses and finally a crowd-funded vagina (her campaign to raise the funds was called KickStartHer). While much of it seems hard to fathom in reality, sometimes life can be stranger than fiction and Manifest Pussy is that larger-than-life, real-life story that demands to be a musical.
The winsome songs are catchy and memorable (all co-penned with various collaborators). They hook you like a fish on a line while Shakina's charismatic delivery reels you in. The opening number of any musical is vital as it sets the tone for the whole show, introduces key characters and style, and lets the audience know what they are getting into. The fabulous B.N.P. (which stands for "Brand New Pussy") co-written with Joel Waggener) achieves all those things and more. It's an entertaining, energetic ditty full of quirky quips where Shakina boasts about her "Post-Op Co-op" ("Get it? Co-op because she's collectively owned!") lady parts.
From there, Shakina's Heroine's Journey harkened back to her youth where she never felt right as a boy and was "waiting for my vagina to open". She recounts wearing a matted, ratty old wig at a gay hunting lodge (as one does in such a place) and being referred to as 'her' for the first time. The reaction? "I got hard!" Shakina gleamed. Her leafing through the New Testament of the Bible (being raised Jewish, this wasn't a previously experienced read) on the New York subway, she discovered a passage from Matthew 19:11-12 that states: "...there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it." Bolstered by permission from Jesus himself, this further inspired Shakina to part from her friends at the newly-created MTF theatre company (then housed in a gay porn studio) and take a trip to Bangkok for her gender confirmation surgery with a doctor - Dr. Suporn - who pioneered a new approach to the procedure, guaranteeing her the "Cadillac of pussies". She discovered him through porn and admired his handiwork.
This segued into "Taking Off" (co-authored with Zoe Sarnak) an upbeat yet introspective voyage song where Shakina reflects on her inability to stay put for very long - "I arrive someplace, I mess things up and then vanish without a trace." These patterns would be another pervasive thread. "Taking Off" is also referential to something she would be removing and not coming back with - her manhood.
Once having arrived in the sweltering, sticky heat of Bangkok, Shakina took a ritual bath, sort of like a mikvah or baptism to mark her pilgrimage. While being cleansed and purified in preparation for the biggest transformation of her life, her mind drifted back to the genesis of what brought her there, and revisits desperate longing to don a dress at her family's Super Bowl party at the tender age of six and seeing the disappointment in her mother's eyes. This is the premise of the song "Wear You" (credited to Julianne Wick Davis), a heartbreakingly beautiful, melodic piece that acts as a time machine to transport the audience to a moment where great desire and joy was teamed with sadness and shame.
The recollections of past trauma only got worse as she described being bullied in high school, simply walking out one day and, with trouble at home, she ended up being institutionalized at a "very romantic asylum called Capistrano By The Sea". Many great artists have had the unfortunate experience of asylums as a 'home away from home' and Shakina has used that extremely difficult episode in her life as fodder for her art, with tones of seriousness alternating with humor as she describes her self-harm induced trip to solitary confinement where all she could do to soothe herself was to sing. "Cut and Run" (with music by Lauren Marcus and lyrics by Shakina Nayfack) is quite possibly the most enduring, magnificent, potently powerful song out of the many outstanding pieces of Manifest Pussy. Great art can come from very dark places. Its depth lies in its simplicity and sincerity, like a gospel or blues wail born out of immense hurt. But right as the tears are brimming, Shakina lifts the audience up again with feelings of hope and inspiration.
Her time in Thailand continued with a stint of volunteering at a sanctuary for abused elephants. It was there that she met her answer to a wise, though wordless Obi-Wan Kenobi-like sage and spirit-animal guide, Pai-Lin, a 72 year-old elephant who had been permanently disfigured from years of carrying around tourists and, like all of the domesticated elephants there, was put through a process called Phajaan where they are taken from their mothers and tortured until they cry out and it is understood that their spirit has been broken. Shakina's above-referenced experiences in the song "Cut and Run" and the stories shared around it were her own Phajaan, but Pai-Lin taught her that a spirit is never truly broken but bent like her twisted spine. Their loving interaction and soulful connection were movingly portrayed in the song "The Elephant Song (Spirits Don't Break)" that featured music and lyrics by Nikko Benson.
Next stop on the Heroine's Journey would be to Bangkok's red-light district where Shakina witnessed up close and personal what a vagina is capable of at a place that was appropriately dubbed Pussy Magic. There were flying darts and ping pong balls galore! From there she met a hoard of male escorts who shared a bottle of whiskey then escorted her back to her hotel for a five-way night of exhausting and exhilarating action told through the song "Last Night in Bangkok" with music by Michael R. Jackson. It's everything you'd want a good gangbang song to be- a quippy, trippy, hysterical and rollicking rock n' roll romp! For those familiar with Michael R. Jackson's work, it's easy to tell this is his song with the internalizations externalized in a quirky, comedic way. It's almost as if The Thoughts, his chorus of the voices in his head for A Strange Loop, had taken up a temporary residence in Shakina's mind. The two musicals share a lot in common. Both are deeply personal, heroic quests from massively talented, musically articulate queer artists trying to find their place and true voice.
After her pre-surgery meeting with Dr. Suporn - "It was like being face-to-face with a wizard!" Shakina exclaimed - where the process is explained in graphic, squirm-inducing detail (ouch!), Shakina performed her last ritual by watching the "Sunset Over Bang-Sen Beach", which is also the title of the next song penned with Sam Salmond. It's an elegant, soft, reflective and meditative ballad about washing away that which is undesirable (in this case, rotten fish) and the need to leave something behind to begin again and start anew.
"Him Today, Gone Tomorrow" with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, arguably MTF's most famous alumni after his Be More Chill made it to Broadway this year, was introduced by Shakina's examination of her brief brush with "being a boy again" after the tragedies of 9/11 made proper preferential pronouns seem unimportant only to rediscover that it is valid and significant to own and express who she truly knows herself to be - enough to be willing to be cut open for the privilege. In his pleasing and playful style, the tuneful number is jazzy with a bit of country twang thrown in for good measure. Somehow, despite the multitude of collaborators, each with their own distinctive sounds, Manifest Pussy never feels like disparate parts strewn together haphazardly, but a rich and varied sonic and lyrical voyage well-befitting its star and subject.
She described the procedure itself in "The Surgery (Under the Knife)" a rapid-fire stream-of-conscious monologue that fell somewhere between slam poetry and Patti Smith as a low guitar droned tensely. Religious themes like "body on the altar, burnt like an offering" and "she shall be remade" are pervasive throughout.
"Down The Shower Drain" celebrates Shakina's return to a ritual bath of another kind - her first as a woman. It is a watery, gentle and sweet song of healing, redemption, renewal and empowerment. It's a sweeping Sondheim-esque piece that gives the impression of the journey's end with lyrics such as "a railroad of stitches to a paradise found." But the show is far from over and the happy ending will not arrive before a few more low blows are dealt.
After the painful process of neovaginal dilation in order to "heal not seal" Shakina discovered, to her horror, that she had necrosis and her clitoris wouldn't survive. "I am a 90's feminist. I came of age in the age of the clit! The center is female power and pleasure. Everything I sought to uncover and now there will be no day of joy!" This led to "Falls Off", an angst-fueled, anger-driven, aggressive punk rock anti-prayer of resentment that features music by Teresa Lotz and is reminiscent of "Exquisite Corpse" from Hedwig.
"Suicide was always the backup plan," Shakina reflects as she draws upon the memory of her dear friend Gia Gloria, a truly gorgeous, glamorous trans woman to whom Shakina did a tribute to on Trans Day of Remembrance this week. Gia took a handful of sleeping pills just one week before her own gender confirmation survey. The two were thick as thieves and vowed to do everything together. At that point she regressed to feeling alone and lost again as she performed "Cut and Run (Reprise)" with new lyrics "I'm cut, but I can't ru-uh-un, ru-uh-un."
But a happy ending was promised and one there will be. The setback reminded her of turning a traumatic experience around in the way she best knows how - through song! Just like she did in the oddly named asylum. With a new wig and a fond farewell from the girls at Magic Pussy, Shakina 11 o'clock number with music by Shaina Taub is the conclusion of the journey, the Heroine's Return, ready for rest, eager to lay down her burdens and be free, to commence the next volume in the adventures of her life now that one book is closed. It's uplifting, powerful yet peaceful and restorative like a deep breath of clean, oxygen after a marathon.
"Healing is a practice and I've been practicing a lot," Shakina explained in regards to masturbation, admitting the newness and uncertainty of it all. Finally, she got her "day of joy." But that was only the beginning as she also noted, "Healing is a practice no one should have to practice alone," she'd soon find a loving, affectionate and patient partner to help her heal and find many more days of joy - body and soul. "The radical act of being a trans woman in love," Shakina proclaimed, and being that trans women and the men who love them are still having their lives taken from them or taking their own simply due to who they are and who they love, it's a radical, even potentially dangerous and revolutionary act indeed - one that everyone deserves just as everyone deserves to express who they really are and expect that they will be accepted for it.
Shakina closed the show with "Finale (B.N.P./Taking Off Reprise)". With her overwhelming generosity of spirit that becomes obvious to anyone who knows her, it is a triumphant message of encouragement to all and metaphor for everyone to manifest their own dreams.
Shakina Nayfack plans to take this show on the road again as she did in 2016 in North Carolina when the state passed a law that caused the gender-restrictive bathroom fiasco but, as a backlash, sparked others to clearly state the welcoming of one's chosen gender to define whichever toilet they felt more comfortable going into. Her goal is to take Manifest Pussy into the Heartland of America and pry open minds and hearts through sharing her Heroine's Journey in places where fear and ignorance can overrule human compassion and understanding. "You haven't lived until you've performed 'Last Night in Bangkok' at a metal bar in Fayetteville, North Carolina!" Shakina exclaimed. If there's anyone who could get people to fall in love with her, her story, garner another level of mainstream acceptance and warrant adoration and appreciation from closed minds or opposing sides, it's Shakina Nayfack. Well, maybe her and Dolly Parton. This Heroine's work is only beginning. Rock on Shakina!