A little past 8pm, the band atop the Wild Project’s bare stage begins to play an opening jaunt by Zoe Sarnak, part of a genre-bending new generation of musical theater writers, and Shakina Nayfack steps onstage to sing about her Brand New Pussy. “She’s made for lovin’ and breakin’ hearts,” Shakina proclaims fiercely.
This isn’t a metaphor, but rather Post-Op, Shakina’s second one-woman show that centers around her “pilgrimage” to Thailand to receive “gender confirmation” surgery and the experiences she had during the time she spent recovering afterward. She wrote most of the piece, but collaborated with many composers to create the music that populates the show. Not so incidentally, she is the founding artistic director of Musical Theater Factory, a new arts organization dedicated to the development of new musicals (and yes, the acronym MTF is intentional.)
The experience of a trans person’s surgery (or decision to have it done at all) is often a deeply private matter, and one that trans folk should never feel obligated to discuss. However, Shakina is loud and proud and unafraid to deal in the gory details. This type of brash openness (the show opens with her sharing with us the last dick pic she ever took) is refreshing in its willingness to answers questions about her life before people even have the chance to ask them.
That was how Shakina: Post-Op came into existence. The first solo musical Shakina created, One Woman Show, was crafted at about the same time she decided to fully and publicly commit to her transition. She tells me she created it foremost for her friends and family, in an effort to explain her journey and identity to them. However, it quickly became clear that a show of this nature should reach a wider audience, and she performed One Woman Show at other venues throughout the city, as well as in California and Massachusetts. It was also her first time performing in over ten years.
“I am recently reborn as a performer,” she tells me as we sit atop the Wild Project’s quaint green rooftop. “It was something that I did when I was younger, and when I came to the realization that I could never and would never be an actress, I stopped.” This makes Post-Op all the more powerful, as it is the ultimate display of agency: a marginalized person writing, crafting, and performing her own narrative about her very body and identity using a form that typically has made no space for her.
“I think musicalized storytelling creates a greater window for empathy and emotional connection. There’s a heightened poetry to the language, and there’s something that music just does to your body and your soul when you’re listening to it,” she says. “But I think this whole experience that I’ve had wrestling with and redefining and coming into relationship with my body is all contained within this flesh. And to be able to use that same body to tell that story and to then extrapolate a deeper, more universal meaning from my own private journey feels like a remarkable task. It’s a story about a body, coming from the body that lived it.”
These days, she feels opportunities for trans and gender-variant individuals in theater have expanded beyond the essentially zero that led her to cease performing; one can point to recent milestones like popular casting website Backstage’s addition to indicate if a role is gender-neutral or specifically transgender, spurred on by Playwrights Horizons’ production of Taylor Mac’s play Hir. However, the realm of musical theater remains a bit more difficult.
“If you’re a young, gender non-conforming person who loves musical theater, there’s still not a way in for you. And I think we really have to find ways, through providing opportunities for these folks that feel so marginalized by their own presentation or representation or lack thereof.” This is in part due to the vocal training necessary for musical theater performers, which is inherently different for performers who are trans.
“When I think about trans representation in musical theater, the voice is a huge concern, and something that needs to be opened up in a way that is less limiting,” she says. “That’s a big thing I think about a lot, especially in the importance of advocating for training.”
Shakina intends to address this in Post-Op, not always adhering to traditionally “feminine” notions of vocal range. “I’m working with a voice teacher now for the first time, and one of the things I realized I was really concerned with is, as a trans person, passing is this huge objective. I speak with a pretty natural voice, but it’s still intentionally affected to create a more feminine intonation. And ultimately it’s really restrictive. And one of the things I have to confront in my own artistic process is the fear of sounding too masculine when I’m singing. One of the things I’ve tried to do in Post-Op is give myself the full range, and sort of not be afraid of how my physical and visual representation matches or doesn’t match with the sounds coming out of my body.”
Post-Op was conceived in the time Shakina spent recovering from her surgery, and was performed for the first time on the one-year anniversary of her procedure, and then at a sold-out concert at Joe’s Pub earlier this year. Shakina alternates song and monologue in a way that is both theatrical and conversational, recalling a cabaret but becoming dramatic in higher-caliber moments near the end. This is useful when dealing in content that many audience members cannot explicitly identify with, as it creates a casual space in treating the arguably-momentous event of her surgery as something approachable but properly important.
The way that Shakina reveals the depths of her personal experience to the audience (and we do learn a lot) never feels indulgent. Surely this is due to her engaging nature and the largely delightful songs that flow nicely despite being written by many different composers. But it’s also undoubtedly due to the fact that her narrative is one that is rarely shared in this way. Music like this usually invites ingenues to sing about their first love, but instead we are treated to a ballad about her first shower post-op; monologues about spending intimate time with Thai strippers and receiving privileged treatment at the hospital for being a tourist; and a truly compelling hard rock number about an unfortunate side effect of her complicated medical procedure, which we are extensively educated about.
We’re lulled almost into a sense of comfort and humor with the way Shakina tells her story. When the show ends with a rousing and soulful finale number (delightfully penned by Shaina Taub) it makes the moment when we leave this theatrical safe space and recall the transphobia still so prevalent in the world sting a little bit more. It’s reassuring to know that, with the help of Shakina and MTF, musical theater is finally beginning to be one of those places trans folk can go to make themselves heard.
‘Shakina: Post-Op’ continues tonight at 7pm and Oct 23-25 at The Wild Project, 195 E 3rd Street. Times vary. Tickets are $17-20 and can be purchased here.
Written and performed by Shakina Nayfack, directed by Sarna Lapine, music directed by Jacob Yates, with additional music and lyrics by Joel Waggoner, Zoe Sarnak, Nikko Benson, Ty Defoe, Tidtaya Sinutoke, Michael R. Jackson, Sam Salmond, Julianne Wick Davis, Teresa Lotz, Lauren Marcus, and Shaina Taub.