Many artists have to work odd jobs to pay the bills, but comedian Nicky Sunshine had a hustle that set her apart from most. After getting tired of and/or fired from unsatisfying gigs and winning a comedy competition that paid only in beer, Sunshine answered an ad in the back of the Village Voice and found herself at a happy ending massage parlor. Her one-woman show Confessions of a Massage Parlor Madam, which ran at the East Village’s historic Wow Café Theater this past weekend, is a chronicle of how she got there and what happened next.
Sunshine’s show is timely, and not just because of the recent national news that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been linked to “day spas and massage parlors” offering prostitution. DecrimNY, a new group advocating for full decriminalization of sex work in New York, launched this morning with a rally. A Daily News op-ed by state senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos calling for full decriminalization also ran today.
In the simple black box theater outfitted with a massage table, wicker hamper, and folding chairs, Sunshine greets the audience like old friends. She then seamlessly launches into her show, detailing a fraught childhood marked by a violent father, angry mother, and a babysitter who Sunshine implies sexually abused her as a child. It’s not all doom and gloom: her Christian grandmother raised her when her parents could not, and she went on to get two degrees at Northwestern University.
Realizing she wanted to pursue acting, she moved to Newark, where she lived on an ex-boyfriend’s couch and worked a series of unsuccessful jobs to support her acting pursuits. After seeing a TV ad encouraging people to be their own boss and refrain from menial labor, she answers a Village Voice ad promising “big money,” which leads her to an illicit massage parlor. There, she doesn’t need a resume, but she does need a new name.
Though she feels guilty, Sunshine says working in massage became “a habit.” It’s not ideal: her boss takes 50% of her pay and sends her on outcalls spontaneously, sometimes customers are aggressive, and there’s always the threat of arrest. Still, she relishes in the cash.
One of the show’s strongest components is Sunshine’s ability to embody multiple characters through her voice. Whether she’s portraying her gruff Eastern European massage boss Anya or her own mother, she’s able to simply, realistically shift her voice and evade some of the unnecessary hoops one-person shows jump through to indicate multiple characters (props, hurriedly-changed costumes, lighting shifts, and so on). In a post-show talkback, Sunshine mentions Anna Deavere Smith as an influence, which is apparent.
As the show’s title implies, she didn’t work under Anya forever. After a prostitution sting at a hotel, Sunshine goes to jail, telling jokes to her cellmates to make the experience bearable. She’s given two days of community service, then jumps back in, renting rooms in Chelsea and starting her own massage parlor. Business is booming; she no longer has to live in Newark.
While the performance of Massage Parlor Madam was compelling, there were some moments that felt inconsistent. Sunshine repeatedly tells the audience not to judge her for the choices she makes, but doesn’t always extend that same respect to others.
“Most of these girls are idiots,” she says of her coworkers at Anya’s, saying they have “mental problems” and are greedy, unattractive, “easy,” and drug addicted. Sunshine implies she had a drinking problem while working in massage, but frames herself as more polished and acceptable than her cohorts. She describes even her male clients as merely eccentric (well, sometimes with a penchant for stalking), but says she doesn’t look down on them for wanting “a little pleasure.”
Near the middle of the show, the comedic stories take a somber turn. After detailing a particularly unnerving outcall (a type of appointment where she visits a client’s home), Sunshine plays a slideshow of headlines detailing sex-working women killed by clients found on Craigslist and harrowing statistics on African-American sex trafficking victims. Then, she tells the crowd about a time her best friend at the parlor was held at knifepoint by a client, and they were afraid to tell the cops.
Curiously, this NYC show about a New York experience failed to include any headlines on Yang Song, a sex worker who fell to her death in Flushing during a 2017 massage parlor raid. Additionally, the headline slideshow appears to conflate sex work and sex trafficking, which may share some common characteristics but are not the same thing.
After a series of police raids, Sunshine’s apartment was ultimately condemned by the city as a “house of prostitution,” she tells us, and there was no going back from that. After a decade of running her own massage joint, she encounters an “angel,” and she’s able to leave the business and resume her focus on performing. However, she breezes over many details of her transition out of sex work, including who this “angel” was and how they were able to help her to the degree that she no longer needed her sex work income.
In this very timely show, Sunshine says “fear is a part of the job,” and that “danger and death” is “the risk you take for the money you make” in sex work. Almost all of the perils she mentions in Massage Parlor Madam—clients not taking no for an answer, threats of violence, arrests, raids—were exacerbated by the fact that sex workers often do not feel they can go to the police due to the illegality of their work, and often face barriers leaving the industry.
“Criminalization exposes people to exploitation,” Salazar and Ramos write in their Daily News op-ed. “Prostitution records take people’s choices away, and when people have no choice but to trade sex to survive, they are more likely to be trafficked.” Salazar and Ramos represent districts in Brooklyn and Queens reported to have high rates of sex work arrests, particularly of black women, trans women, and undocumented Asian women.
Confessions of a Massage Parlor Madam presents a personal tale of what being a sex worker in New York was like in recent years, offering equals parts fear and financial fulfillment, and these new political initiatives are paving the way for a possible future, one where death and danger and unethical bosses may not lurk around every corner.