I was first introduced to Shakina Nayfack two years ago. She was quickly garnering a reputation as a performer to watch, largely thanks to her powerful autobiographical One Woman Show at Joe's Pub.
The night I went to see Post-Op, her follow-up show at Joe's Pub about her journey to Thailand for gender-confirmation surgery, goes down in history as one of my favorite New York nights. There she was, bearing her soul. She expressed the love she had for her new vagina, the wonder of rediscovering her own body, and the pain of mutilating it in the hopes of achieving something greater. She was raw and transcendental. Her strength rippled off the stage and through the crowd, propelling us into the night.
Since, Shakina has toured her follow-up show, Manifest Pussy, throughout North Carolina in protest of HB2 (a.k.a. "the bathroom bill") and booked a leading role in the Hulu series Difficult People. She also continues to run the Musical Theatre Factory, the nonprofit arts organization she launched in 2014.
We sat down in her new office downtown, just across the street from where I first saw her perform, and chatted about advocacy, rocking a shaved head, and why being in a loving relationship is the most radical, subversive act there is. Our interview was an unexpected, instant connection. I was blown away by her graciousness and philosophy on life.
Olivia Clement: Let's talk about Lola, your character on Difficult People, why is she such an important character to have on TV right now?
Shakina Nayfack: I could be wrong, but I think that she's the first genuinely comedic trans character on television. Comedy is not created at her expense; she's actually generating jokes and laughs. I think that's pretty radical. Also, she calls out assumptions about transgender women and deflates them right then and there. I have a line in season two where I say, "Just because I'm trans, you think I'm a sex worker." Or: "I'm a trans woman, not a drag queen." And I'm not doing any of those things; I have adventures that are just fun and ridiculous, that aren't focused on my trans identity as a plot point. There's also the fact that I'm an unconventional body type, which is again disrupting assumptions about what trans women have to be like.
OC: I know a lot of people see you as a role model. Do you see yourself that way?
SN: I'm aware that I'm a role model, and I take it very seriously. It informs a lot of what I do because I feel a responsibility to my community.
OC: You do so much — you're an advocate, an actress, and you run your own theater company. What drives you?
SN: I have my own drive. I value discipline and process, and I value virtuosity. I aspire to it. I don't think there's anything wrong with setting a high bar for yourself. At the same time, I believe in rising tides lifting all boats — especially coming from a community that's been so heavily oppressed for so many years. I have a sense of who has helped me come up in the world, and I feel an obligation to share the wealth. I try to balance my own drive and motivation to succeed with my passion for advocacy and supporting other people. Happiness is only valuable when shared, and there are plenty of pieces of the pie. If you're in the business of manifesting miraculous things like I am, then poverty consciousness doesn't help. You need to be able to see beyond the illusion of limited opportunity in order to embrace limitless opportunity.
OC: Earlier, you said something about Lola breaking down the barriers of how a trans woman is supposed to look. You do that in real life too. Tell me about your shaved head.