When transgender actress Shakina Nayfack heard that producers and composers of Wicked and West Side Story weren’t allowing their shows to be performed in North Carolina in protest of the state’s so-called bathroom law, she went into full activist mode.
“I thought it was terrible to strip people of their rights and then strip them of their meaningful entertainment,” says the 35-year-old New Yorker.
So she packed her bags and marched straight into enemy territory with her glam-rock musical, Manifest Pussy, which centers on her life before and after gender confirmation surgery. Audiences, she says, were delighted.
“I always said that when the revolution comes I want to be out on the front lines entertaining the troops,” says Nayfack, who traces her social activism to UC Santa Cruz, where she graduated in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in community studies and a minor in theater arts. “I create change through art, and through the way I live my life.”
Nayfack is creating a lot of change these days—not only through her one-woman shows and her theater company, the Musical Theatre Factory, but also through her new role as the transgender Lola in Hulu’s hit show Difficult People, which is co-executive produced by comedian Amy Poehler.
Created for the show’s second season, Nayfack’s character, Lola, is obsessed with 9/11 conspiracy theories and gender privilege issues, and doesn’t fit the usual sympathetic roles often assigned to subjugated people on TV, Nayfack says.
“She is funny and narcissistic and confrontational and doesn’t have a sympathetic bone in her body, so it’s refreshing to play a trans character that is just a character,” Nayfack says.
On the phone, Nayfack is funny, poignant, and honest.
She describes herself as a “glamazon” (she is 6-foot-2 with long, blond hair) and tells of being 6 years old at a Super Bowl party and seeing the chagrin of her mother and other party guests when she donned one of the dresses intended to entertain the girls while the boys watched football.
“The first time I felt pretty was the first time I felt shame,” she said.
She tells of coming out as gay in high school because it was the only way she knew to identify herself, then being taunted and bullied, then institutionalized “because no one knew what to do with me.”
She talks of the first time she used the term “transgender” to identify herself after a show-stopping performance at Porter College’s Queer Fashion Show, then of her 2014 crowdfunded gender confirmation surgery in Thailand.
With filming wrapped for her Difficult People season and a performance schedule ahead of her, Nayfack, who won a 2015 Lilly Award that recognizes women’s contributions to theater, is committed to continuing her work and advocacy.
“I dreamed big, but I never dreamed this big,” she says about her Difficult People role.
“So much,” she says, “has changed.”