What It Means to "Transform" — This Transgender Actress Is Telling Her Story (Through Song and Theatre)

BY OLIVIA CLEMENT

SEPT 19, 2015

"It's a flabbergasting thing," begins Shakina Nayfack. "To consider mutilating the part of your body that causes the most pleasure in hopes that you can receive something greater than what you already have." For people who have never lived with gender dysphoria, it's perhaps unimaginable, but Nayfack, a performer, writer and artistic director, has made it her mission to bring trans stories to the forefront.

Nayfack's show Post-Op, which premieres Sept. 22 at Joe's Pub, chronicles her pilgrimage for gender confirmation surgery in Thailand. In her own words, it is "about de-mystification, education and advocacy, all under the disguise of entertainment." The show, which blends original song with story, is laced with her signature wit and humor. It is a kind of follow-up to her acclaimed One Woman Show, which tracked her experience, over 33 years, as a transgender woman.

Like Nayfack's shows, it could be said that trans stories are becoming increasingly visible. Plays like the upcoming Hir Off-Broadway features a trans character, as do films like "The Danish Girl," "Tangerine Dream" and "Transamerica," to name a few. The trans narrative has also undoubtedly reached the mainstream with the help of high-profile celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. 

Whilst Nayfack acknowledges this progress, she believes there is still a long way to go. "There are other parts of the conversation that are still being left out," she explains. "Caitlyn and Laverne are really great…but I think maybe I'm trying to bring another component." Specifically: the transgender body. 

"I think that what's interesting is that both of them [Cox and Jenner] really avoid talking about the body…First and foremost my real objective is that I'm very body-focused." Nayfack has never shied away from the issue of the body; her earlier show opened with the lyric, "I'm getting a vagina."

"I started right away with being very focused on what it meant to transform your physical being and then what it meant to put that in conversation with questions of spirituality and identity and politics," she says.  Post-Op is no different. Part of the show deals with the first time she encountered her body physically and visually post-surgery. When she stepped out of the shower at the hospital, the nurse wrapped a towel around her and she started to cry. "Are you in pain?" asked the nurse.

"No, I feel good," replied Nayfack, through tears. Overwhelmed with emotion, she wrote a poem about the experience and that became the inspiration for one of the songs in the show, composed by frequent collaborator Julieanne Wick Davis. Post-Opis also marked with frequent moments of joy, laughter and friendship – as well as elephants, strippers and soccer players. 

For Nayfack, it's imperative that transgender stories are told by trans people. "I think we're in a really important political and cultural moment wherein it's no longer appropriate to have cisgendered actors playing trans roles," she says."Because representation is a political issue."

Her comments bring to mind the recent outcries from the transgender community when Eddie Redmayne was cast in the role of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in the autobiographical film, "The Danish Girl."

"I never would want to take away the tremendous experience it could be for a cisgendered actor to get inside the mind and body of a trans character. I think that's incredibly valuable," says Nayfack. "But visibility and representation have deep political and economic implications.

"With trans people facing a disproportionate level of employment discrimination, housing discrimination, police discrimination, lack of legal protection, the oft-quoted drastically disproportionate percentage of suicide rates – these issues are directly impacted by who we see representing the trans community. "

"Telling trans stories without trans people actually doesn't do much to help trans people," she continues. "It does a little, but we need to see more trans people."

And that's exactly what she'll be doing when she brings Post-Opto the stage at Joe's Pub: telling her own story and helping pave the way for the better representation of trans artists in our community.

Nayfack is also the artistic director of Musical Theatre Factory, a nonprofit company dedicated to helping musical theatre artists develop and present new work in a collaborative atmosphere. Some of the work the organization does includes its developmental program "New Orchestrations," in which teams of early-career musical theatre writers are paired with Broadway orchestrators.