On April 14, 2014, Broadway Battles Bullying presented on a benefit concert to raise money for the family of Michael Morones, an 11-year-old boy who attempted suicide after being bullied for his love of My Little Pony. The show featured a cascade of Broadway performers singing inspirational show tunes and pop selections about self-acceptance, love, and friendship. A highlight was host and mistress of ceremonies, Shakina Nayfack, a transgender performing artist/director whose energy, edgy humor, stage presence and own musical number (the poignant “Wear You” about his desire as a young boy to cross dress; music and lyrics by Julianne Wick Davis) left me wanting more. Enter One Woman Show, Shakina’s musical cabaret fresh off a sold-out run at Joe’s Pub and 54 Below and currently in limited engagement at Sophie’s inside Broadway Comedy Club. I made it my business to get there and it’s a very good thing I did, because One Woman Show is an exceptionally entertaining night of theater.
Shakina is a striking presence. Tall, broad shouldered, tattooed and bald, she has a face that glistens and a smile that lights up a room. Backed by a four-piece band and packed into a killer teal dress, her face perfectly made up with matching sparkly eye shadow (“I applied it myself, of course!” she tells me while effortlessly working the room before the show), Shakina kicks off the night singing “Chick with a Shtick”, a nod to her Jewish heritage and play on words for the body part she is excited to excise. Within a few bars she and shortly after belting “I’m getting a vaginaaaa”, I am not the least bit uncomfortable. And herein lies one of Shakina’s many, extraordinary gifts – she puts you at ease while unapologetically, lovingly being herself. She is a soul sister, glam rock, badass punk diva singing about a traumatic childhood (proving once again that the best comedy comes from pain) and gender transition process that will culminate in sexual assignment surgery by a doctor in Thailand. I am riveted—it is that feeling you get when in the presence of real, bona fide talent.
What follows is a fast moving, 90 minutes of original musical numbers written for Shakina, cover songs and show tune medleys interspersed with exceptionally detailed, confessional, courageous and raw autobiographical storytelling. One Woman Show begins in “1987, suburban LA” where desires to wear a dress are met with judgment, and expressions of gender identity and sexuality are greeted with gay bashing and blame—all this contributing to being institutionalized at age 16.
In recounting this all, Shakina takes the audience deep into the belly of what it feels like to struggle against bigotry and mental illness. From singing at the top of her lungs while in psych ward solitary confinement (the rapid-fire and fun “Capo Medley,” arrangement by Jeremy Robin Lyons) or awakening to the meaning of rebirth by way of getting a tattoo of the Phoenix (the beautiful “Red, Orange, and Gold”, music and lyrics by Nikko Benson), you begin to understand how triumphant Shakina has been and why she possesses an urgent need to tell this story.
When Shakina comes out as transgendered in 2001, she is 18 years old, and develops an identity as Latex Superstar while embracing a life of activism that includes sex education and slam poetry (brought back to life for us in performance). We learn about the love and loss of her friend and “Glam as Fuck” comrade Gia (the haunting “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask) and how issues of shame creep in to paralyzing effect (“Fallen Angel” a dramatic, beautiful original ballad with music and lyrics by Joel Waggoner). While touching on lessons gleaned from tragedy, the narrative is peppered with comedy —“Don’t look at me. Don’t look at my control tops either.”—so the energy in the room remains buoyant.
One Woman Show is performed without an intermission but follows a three act structure and the final act is speedy and heavy on the details of what sounds like an amazing life – Shakina earns an MFA in Experiemental Choreography, PhD in Critical Dance Studies, does extensive Butoh Ritual study in Mexico, develops the rock opera “Junk”, to name a few – culminating in a relocation to NYC to fulfill not only her gender transition process but the dream of returning to the stage. The latter seems like a no-brainer, as Shakina’s vocals are completely off the chart and Broadway caliber. Composer Joe Iconis provides the music and lyrics for the two final songs, “Broadway, Here I Come!” and “Him Today, Gone Tomorrow”, empowerment anthems that celebrate promise and the power to believe in all your dreams, or as Shakina puts it, her choice to pursue “Two dreams for the price of one!” One gets the feeling that if the Shakina had 20 dreams, she could accomplish them all. Seeing her show evokes the feeling you can do it too, which might be the biggest feat accomplished and yet another reason I deem this show a must-see.
One Woman Show
Sophie’s (318 West 53rd Street between 8th and 9th avenues)
Remaining performances: April 22 (9:30 p.m.) and 24 (10 p.m.)
$15 cover charge and a two-drink minimum.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.