The In Conversation series brings together theatre artists of all disciplines together to discuss their work, their process, their passions, and their favorite ice cream flavors. In this installment, lyricist Sukari Jones speaks to Factory Artistic Director Shakina Nayfack about premiering Manifest Pussy at Joe’s Pub as well as her upcoming Rebel Tour.SUKARI:Ok, I have my questions. Let’s quasi properly begin…
SUKARI: So my very first question would be, and I’m not joking: who are you in this world and exactly what are you trying to do:
SHAKINA: Alright. It’s almost like a trick question…I am…a storyteller, a spiritual warrior, and I’m sure a third thing. And–
SUKARI: Are you a personality? Are you a persona? Are you becoming a product that people are trying to get at right now?
SHAKINA: I think I’m trying to stay ahead of that. There’s a part of me that’s consciously crafting a persona, a brand, but that is a tool to do the work that I’m here to do. Which I think is to contribute to the evolution of the species and the healing of the planet by living a radically self-realized life, and encouraging other people to do the same.
SUKARI: Ok, next: We get in a time machine, we travel 25 years into the future. We meet whatever age Shakina. What has she been through, accomplished, built, lost, traversed, left behind, learned? Any or all of the above?SHAKINA: EGOT. I’ll definitely be an [EGOT – “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony” in reference to persons who have won all four awards].
[Me laughing wildly.]
SHAKINA: I think work done well begets work. All I wanna do is work! In theater, and film, and television music. And writing. But–
SUKARI: Hang on. Clearly you’re part of the theatrical conversation. The political conversation. How do you feel you’re adding to certain dialogues and what dialogues do you think I’m alluding to, that you think you’re a part of.
SHAKINA: One of the dialogues I feel I’m most assuredly a part of is the question of diversifying representation in musical theater, and I think more recently I’m being brought into that conversation around television. How I’m contributing is representing my perspective, which is that of a spiritual feminist Trans woman. But always trying to draw attention to points of intersection between my life experience, which is one particular type of marginalization, and other folks who are left out of the mainstream, so that we don’t simplify the issues but actually look at the complexities that connect people who feel disenfranchised.
SUKARI: Is Trans trending right now? Is Trans having a moment?
SHAKINA: Yes. Trans on trend.
SUKARI: How do you react to being a member of a minority who has a spotlight on quintessential issues of that minority identity that are, as you say, on trend, and is that attention going to last and is that attention meaningful?
SHAKINA: The attention is meaningful insofar as it can be harnessed to create change. It will take some time. I don’t think it will last. I think there will be other causes that come up and demand attention, but we’ve seen historically identity politics and social movements move from one cause to another cause, from one people to another people.
SUKARI: This is supposed to be an interview about you and me asking you questions but I have to make a comment: something that is so lovely about you and being in your presence is having come from the life that you’ve come from is that you are doing something that is really hard for other people to do, but that seems so simple: empathizing with someone who does not come from a place of normative power, or coming from an identity where there are not enfranchised as others, and it’s very rare and it’s kind of this thrilling experience to be around someone who you can take a breath around. Um… you can react or not react to that.
SHAKINA: I’m glad! I think what I would say to that, first of all is thank you, and secondly, I’m conscious of my privilege and the ways I’ve wielded it and the ways I’ve abdicated from it. And I was a radical gay youth activist in the 90s and a big part of that was learning how a coalition builds and how to be an ally for causes that weren’t my own. I remember being at a gay rights conference and the whole first day of the conference was devoted to critical race theory. And I actually remember I was 19 years old and I was thinking, “Why are we talking about race when this is a gay conference?”
SUKARI: What a question.
SHAKINA: It wasn’t that I was against talking about race–But I was a 19 year old gay boy, at the time, and I was just honestly confused about what these things had to do with each other. And that’s when I learned about intersectionality for the first time. So, I think, as a feminist, who was male bodied for many many years–
SUKARI: You are a feminist?
SHAKINA: I am a feminist.
SUKARI: You are identifying as such?
SHAKINA: I absolutely identify as a feminist.
SUKARI: Mkay. (Mumbled) I’m more of a supremacist…
SHAKINA: As a feminist who was male bodied for many years, and as a white anti-racist ally who came up in the Chicano theater, I’ve just learned how to see with the eyes of an advocate and learned act with the integrity of an ally.
SUKARI: You’re able to empathize. That’s what makes you such a good writer and director–
SHAKINA: It’s funny…when I’m directing, sometimes when I’m not sure what to do — and maybe this is because I came from approaching theater as an actor — now an actress — and I’ll just be like “can I be you for a second?” and I’ll stand on stage where they’re standing and think the question, what the character might be thinking. And then I’ll turn back around to the actor and say, “Ok, this is what I’m thinking and feeling in that place. Let’s think and feel from there.”
SUKARI: Do you ever feel like you’re put in the position of teaching cis straight people about transgender issues, and if so can you talk about how the normative gaze or being the “magical trans person” affects your artistic process?
[We smile knowingly at each other.]
SHAKINA: Yeah, so I think one of the things I’m trying to do is be the magical Trans person while at the same time dismantling the trope of the magical Trans person…Cause I am a magical Trans person! And that’s in my nature. I’m like a shaman. There’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, there’s a few tropes and representations in [Trans representation in entertainment media] that I hope to disrupt: the mystical tranny who teaches us to live our lives better, or the suffering Trans person who’s beaten down and victimized; the uneducated sex worker, the sociopath, the psychopath killer. Or the terrified-to-come-out-having-an-identity-crisis-worried-they’re-gonna-lose-the-love-of-everyone-around-them. That’s a necessary part of the transgender coming out process unfortunately but also not the only part of the story we need to be telling over and over and over again.
SHAKINA: I feel like it’s more like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled—
SUKARI: Mm…One of my dream things to adapt–
SHAKINA: –More so than Amos and Andy, because I thought what that film did really well was use minstrelsy to make a comment on representations of race. And I’m using cabaret through my solo shows, like, here I am, just another Transsexual in the east village singing songs about cutting my dick off. I am not the first Trans woman to be telling my story on stage with song. Justin Vivian Bond has done it, Our Lady J, Kate Bornstein–she doesn’t sing.
Shout out! What I want to say about it…
[Long pause, clearly Shakina looks like she doesn’t want to be mean but does want to keep it real.]
SUKARI: The question is coming from the fact that I, myself, feel that I’m often placed in the position of teaching–
SHAKINA: Oh educating educating, right–
SUKARI: Where I don’t want that burden, but I also want people to not get a wrong answer, so I’m like, eugh…
SUKARI: How do you deal with that?
SHAKINA: I feel like it’s not my responsibility to educate people.
SUKARI: It’s not.
SHAKINA: But…when I decided to transition and I knew that I’d already built a community of friends and colleagues in NYC, I wanted to preemptively answer every question. And that’s why I created One Woman Show. And then, when I transitioned and went through my surgery, I kept a blog and people were following me and always asking about it and were really really excited to hear what I had to say because I think it demystified a lot of things for them. I was willing to continue that and I created Post Op because this is like, the whole package. And it was also something I had to do for myself, cause I had a yearlong recovery to look at, and a way to get through that was to say to myself, “In one year, I’m gonna have a new show.”
SUKARI: And those shows are answering questions on your terms, also.
SHAKINA: Yeah, and also onstage, with my script. And choosing when I do interviews. Or not. Cause the thing is I get emails all the time from people who are like, “Can you be in touch with my friend,” or “My child is coming out.” And, it’s like…I’m not your go-to.
SUKARI: You’re not.
SHAKINA: Yeah. I don’t wanna name names.
SUKARI: Name them…
SHAKINA: No! But people have reached out to me, about their personal family issues–
SUKARI: Trans life-coaching?
SHAKINA: Yeah.SUKARI: Iyanla: Fix My Life?
SHAKINA: I am happy to have a conversation with a Trans person who’s, you know, going to the same doctor I’m going to. Or a musical theater–someone where I have something in common. But, we get this idea–It’s like having the one black friend!
SUKARI: Uh oh.
SHAKINA: We get this idea that like, “Oh, we’ve got someone who can answer all the questions!”
SHAKINA: But no, why don’t we think about how many Trans people are actually out there. Why don’t we think about how many books are already out there. How many memoirs. How many support groups. And it’s not my responsibility to guide everyone there.
SUKARI: Are you afraid you’re going to be lynched when you go to North Carolina and perform Manifest Pussy?
SHAKINA: No! I actually have much higher–
SUKARI: I’m sorry, so the answer was no??
SHAKINA: No! I’m not afraid of being lynched. I have much higher expectations and standards and faith in the human race and I believe that the people who are gonna come out to see my show really want to see my show, the venues that are hosting me are venues that want to host me…although I did hear today that the KKK is using HB2 [the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act] as a recruitment tool.
SUKARI: That is a ten minute musical.
SHAKINA: So that is exactly what we talk about in intersectionality. Not to mention the fact that there are tons of Trans people of color in North Carolina. You can’t talk about this one issue without talking about all the other issues. I just watched Roots too, the new reboot–SUKARI: I need to watch that so badly…
SHAKINA: And so much of it takes place in North Carolina–and we’re using the term “Rebel Tour” for [Manifest Pussy]–
SUKARI: I noticed. Don’t think I didn’t notice.
SHAKINA: Which is really intentional, because the “Rebel” flag was still flying last year in a lot of states in the south–
SUKARI: Yes! Yes.
SHAKINA: And prolly still is…and people have made comments about Freedom Riders and Rosa Parks and I think that’s awesome, I think that’s problematic. I think it’s not wise to make that direct a correlation but I think we can learn a lot about how it sometimes takes putting a face to a movement or to an action to make it seem more human. Also, it takes people in positions of privilege and comfort and safety, it takes their willingness to step outside of that and put themselves at risk for others in order to make real change happen.
SUKARI: If the KKK comes to your show, what are you gonna do?
SHAKINA: I’m gonna do my show! I have security guards. At every show.
SUKARI: All jokes aside, I’m very glad to hear that.
SHAKINA: Yeah, there’s gonna be an armed plain clothes officer at every show.
SUKARI: Will there be an announcement before the show that everyone needs to have their cellphones on so they can tape any violence that may or may not occur?
SHAKINA: I think people have their cellphones on no matter what. I feel like the more we give credence to violence and the more we give it permission to exist, the more we give it room to be there…I’m manifesting pussy. I’m not manifesting violence.
SUKARI: What is MANIFEST PUSSY? Is it a musical? Is it a concert? Is it a movement? Is it a diary entry? What venue is it for? Who’s the audience? Any or all of the above.
SHAKINA: I think it’s all those things. The shortest shorthand I have is to say it’s like Hedwig, but real.
SUKARI: Damn. Let me absorb that for a second. You took the time to think up a 4 second elevator pitch that is so killer!
SHAKINA: Thank you!
SUKARI: Woooooow!SHAKINA: Well when you talk about “what would be the ideal venue,” I think what’s great about Manifest Pussy is that it works in rock clubs, and I think it would work in a Broadway house. I’ll be playing in small places, in large places, places with balconies, and places where it’s standing room only, no chairs at all, a standing rock club. I’ll learn more about what the ideal venue is after I do this tour. …It’s an irreverent romp through identity politics with nods to environmental politics, and geopolitics. It’s like a fun and raucous and gratuitous cabaret that is full of critical thought.
SUKARI: Do you think you’re beautiful? Why or why not?
SHAKINA: Ok…I know I’m beautiful. I don’t always think I’m beautiful. And that’s something I’m working on daily to shift within myself.
SUKARI: What does it take within your emotional constitution to perform the show?
SHAKINA: Um…well, look, I love all these songs. And I love all the people that I worked with to make it. And I love these stories because they were really important, impactful to me, and sharing them helps me feel like living through it was worth it. It becomes bigger than just me. So what I need at the show is my own endurance, and people who wish to receive what I have to give.
SUKARI: Oh, so I met your director the other day!
SHAKINA: Shawn [Pecnic]?
SHAKINA: Originally he wasn’t going to be directing it, I just asked him to brainstorm it with me a little bit? He had not seen either One Woman Show or Post Op, and so I said, “Do you wanna come away with me to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and help me take both scripts and start putting them together? Be another set of eyes?” And we did that. And it was really really great, because every story in the show has so much weight and meaning to me, and the two original shows were crafted so carefully and so now to mashup and create a new show meant that things had to be cut or reduced, and that was really challenging for me, and he was really impartial. That was great.
SUKARI: So was he like a sounding board? Was he instrumental at all in deciding to combine the shows?
SHAKINA: No, that was my decision. He really just helped me work through what I needed to work through.
SUKARI: This is still a Shakina joint?
SHAKINA: It’s still a Shakina joint. What Shawn did was reflect back to me what I was saying onstage. And also Natasha Sinha worked a lot with me too. She’s from our dramaturgical team at the beehive [Musical Theatre Factory], and is also a good friend of mine. Along with Jacob Yates, music director, so the four of us were up at the O’Neill for a weekend, invited to do a residency, and that’s where this new version of the show was created. You can’t just [create theater] all alone in a studio because no one’s gonna call you out and tell you, “You can go further.”
SUKARI: Are you a collaborative artist? Do you enjoy collaboration?
SHAKINA: Someone once told me the nature of the Age of Aquarius is co-creation. I feel, as a feminist in a position of artistic director–which is a real masculinist job–I’m trying to reinvent how I work with the power that I have. I love collaboration, I’m a very collaborative artist, and everything at MTF is about collaboration. I decided a few years ago, after I finished my Ph. D, which I wrote, by myself, in a little room in California and a little room in Mexico, “I am done working by myself. Done.” And so I only wanna work with other people. I wanna work with people I love and respect and admire. And it’s challenging with this stuff, this is my autobiography. This is my own life.
Shakina’s performances at Joe’s Pub (June 8 and June 27) will bookend her tour to North Carolina, where she plans to present Manifest Pussy in support of the LGBT community and their allies working to combat state-wide discrimination. Click here for more information.