Better than a Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion reboot, picture it: A milestone high school reunion at an ultra-conservative Catholic high school in Orange County … Shakina Nayfack, Class of (fill in the blank, we don’t do ages): performer, director, writer, producer, artistic director, and activist whose groundbreaking career has encompassed television, theater, and music with projects on Amazon, Hulu, Audible, and NBC; making television history not once, not twice, but three times. Sounds like a Most Successful Honoree, correct? Too bad the high school asked her to leave when she was the victim of bullying because of her identity as part of the LGBTQ community.
I narrowly escaped and narrowly survived. I ended up dropping out of that high school and then was institutionalized for a while in a very Girl, Interrupted sort of way because no one knew what to do with me. And then went to Orange County High School of the Arts where I ended up having to start a riot because they wouldn’t let me create a Pride Club. I ended up not graduating from there either. So, I dropped out of another school after fighting tooth and nail to get this club off the ground. I got my high school proficiency from Horizons, famed Horizons, it was the stuff of legends. I roll hard for what I rep and where I come from, you know? If you are a child of continuation school, you were my people. So that was sort of my Orange County life. The biggest thing is that I refused to be silent about who I was and also refused to be shamed for who I was. This was before I even knew how to identify as trans, I was just femme. I was gay and femme. It was a knockdown, drag-out journey, but I made it and I’m one of the lucky ones.
It was Shakina’s inner strength that got her through those rough years and propelled her journey into the entertainment field. She became founding member and artistic director of New York’s Musical Theatre Factory, developing hundreds of musicals, including the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop and her one-woman show, unabashedly titled Manifest Pussy, to critical and audience acclaim. For her theatre work, she has received the Lilly Award, the TRU Humanitarian Award from Theatre Resources Unlimited, and the Beatrice Terry Fellowship Award from the Drama League. From where did she manifest this inner strength?
I think I knew from a really young age that I had a right to be here. I had something important to say and I had a destiny. I also knew something was wrong, and I refused to accept that it could only be wrong with me. Sometimes it was a bit of “fake it till you make it.” But the tenacity to keep faking it till I made it, still to this day, I think comes from a belief that I have a lot of love to give and that love is sacred and should be blasted out as far and wide as possible. And for someone to tell me that my love that I want to shine is unacceptable or dangerous is a lie, and I won’t stand for it. It basically came down to that.
There was this whole other journey that happened between SoCal and New York. I went to college in Santa Cruz, which is like the redwood forest and the ocean and the most amazing liberal place in the world. I was able to find myself and be myself and change my name and claim my identity. And then I spent a number of years between Riverside and LA and Central Mexico studying ritual dance and really trying to figure out my body and my spirituality. And then I went to New York. So, I had like gone on this whole other kind of academic shamanistic dance journey that sort of rooted me into who I was before I even transitioned.
And then when I moved to New York, I was like, okay, I think the world is ready for me and I’m ready for the world. It was really interesting because I was trying to prove myself as a director and make my way as a director developing new musicals. It wasn’t until I was going to transition and I was like, I don’t know how to afford this. I was like, I think I’m just going to crowdfund this. Wait, how am I going to crowdfund this? I’m going to make a show. I’m going to reach out to my people. I was one of the first people in the Broadway community to transition. I thought, people are going to have so many questions, let me just answer them upfront in a show. And that was the first time I had gotten on stage in over a decade. Suddenly I was like, wait, am I an actress? Am I not a director right now? Am I actually going to become an actress? That thing maybe I always wanted but never thought I could be. And that’s what happened.
Shakina’s first major TV role was playing Lola, a “trans-truther,” on Hulu’s Difficult People, co-starring in a dream cast with Billy Eichner, Julie Klausner, Andrea Martin, Cole Escola, Gabourey Sidibe, and more and that boasted a veritable who’s who of entertainment’s best as guest stars. Shakina was making history as playing the first trans actor in a recurring, comedic role. The character, while speaking about trans rights, was funny and sassy, not a victim, not powerless – a milestone for trans representation. And it was also a milestone for Shakina, who found her comedic voice.
I learned that I was funny. I always made people laugh, but I never thought of myself as a comedian. I was with some of the best comedians in the business, some of the funniest people on television, and I could hold my own. The authentic me that I was bringing is exactly what Lola was. Aside from the hair, I’m pretty much the same. I have been nothing if not consistent and persistent.
Nayfack also served as a writing consultant for the show. She would go on to appear in the finale of Amazon’s Transparent, also working behind the scenes as a writer and producer. In 2020, she became the first trans person to have a starring role on a major network comedy show for NBC’s Connecting. Most recently, she made history again with NBC for her writing, directing, and acting work on Quantum Leap for the “Let Them Play” episode, starring trans actors and centering on the hot topic of trans youth in school sports. Wanting to get more experience in a writer’s room, she wrote a sample and asked to meet with the showrunners of Quantum Leap, pitching her idea for this episode. In every episode, the main character must enter someone else’s body to affect change. Shakina, knowing what it’s like to be in a body that feels foreign, wanted to use the opportunity to feature a family with a trans youth as a way of building a bridge of empathy through storytelling. The episode was a hit. What was her biggest obstacle in getting the episode made?
The biggest challenge for me in getting the episode made was learning to accept all the support from those whom I anticipated having pushback. Then, from there, figuring out how to stand up for what really mattered to me in the episode and communicate that and meet everyone where they were so we could do it collectively and enthusiastically from the beginning. Once we all got aligned and I realized that I had everyone behind me, then we just like had to make an episode, a great episode.
With Shakina’s time in front of behind the camera, what is Hollywood getting right about trans representation, what does Hollywood still need to work on?
I think people have realized that trans people need to play trans people. I hope that we’ll see the end of the practice of cis people playing trans people. I hope that can spill over into disability representation. We’ll see. Hell, even gay and lesbian representation and bi representation!
I think we’re getting right that trans people exist in all fabrics of storytelling because we exist in all fabrics of life. So, I think that you’re starting to see trans characters and trans people pop up in different levels of hierarchy in terms of a series regular, guest star. Also, it’s not always about them being trans, it isn’t about their transness. They have a whole arc and it’s just them living a life. We’re starting to see some of that real integration, not tokenism.
Where we need work is that in representation, one is not enough. That’s like the actual rule. They don’t tell you that when they say representation matters, but one is not enough. That means anytime you’re in a meeting or anytime you’re writing a script or anytime you’re casting a show, one of anyone isn’t actually diversity because you need to be able to show multiplicity, multiplicity within identity – that’s what diversity is actually about. Also, representation doesn’t just mean what you see on the screen. Representation means everyone who contributes to the thing that is being seen because there are a lot of eyes and ears and hands and notes on a project before it gets out to the public. So if there aren’t trans people in the room at every level of that conversation, then no matter what is on the screen might have been vetted in a way that’s less than authentic, and that is a concern.
As for the current political war on the trans community, Shakina has a lot to say. An interesting juxtaposition is, the more success that Shakina has had and the more representation the trans community has, the more the conservatives are winning in the legal arena.
There are two things going on that are important to recognize. The first is that at any moment of liberation, the forces of darkness will rally hardest against the light about to break free. We’ve had this incredible swelling of trans visibility and the possibility for trans young people to even come out and exist, which is just so worthy of celebration. But it has created a backlash from a really fringe, unfortunately powerful vocal group that has taken sway over the majority of a passive political base. People are so daunted by the political landscape these days that it’s hard to notice (I forgive people for not noticing) when such a small percentage of the population is being used at such a massive political scale.
It’s interesting because I’m in the business of imagining trans futures and presenting the world with possibilities for trans experience, a trans life. I didn’t have those growing up. And every time we tell a story in media, and we allow audiences to get to know a trans character and to imagine their life and to imagine life with trans people, it just makes the world more possible for us overall. So, a big movement in this quest for trans visibility has been to work against these tropes of trauma and isolation that keep repeating. These stories we tell become the stories we tell ourselves; you know? And so, we’re out here in Hollywood trying to tell a different story than the radical political right is trying to tell. Unfortunately, we haven’t succeeded in mobilizing the bases enough to make a stand, which to me would look like the passage of the Equality Act and national protection for LGBTQ people.
What’s wild is that it’s politicians and ignorant parents pumping fear into kids who otherwise are actually pretty down. Most kids of this generation don’t really have a problem with queerness or gender, they’re just sort of like, okay, you do you, I’m into what I’m into. But it is the fear-mongering and hate being pumped in from politicians, religious institutions, vis-a-vis ignorant parents, where we have to intervene.
With so many different directions Shakina can go into, the spotlight is on her. She has turned her early trauma, her life journey, and her identity into a powerful beacon for the LGBTQ community in entertainment and beyond. Currently, she is working hard on getting her membership in the Director’s Guild of America. She has more stories to tell, more audiences to thrill, and more history to be made. Her message to the LGBTQ community?
Lead with love and protect each other. No one else is doing it for us so we gotta do it for ourselves.
You can follow Shakina on IG: @Shakeenz
Last modified: March 31, 2023