Stepping into the shoes of a much loved character can be daunting. But for Shakina Nayfack, playing Maura Pfefferman in Amazon’s Transparent, was complicated. For Transparent, a show about family baggage, has some major issues of its own.
The story of an L.A. family in fall-out mode from their father’s coming out as a trans woman, the Amazon dramedy provided a rare platform for trans representation on television when it first aired in 2014. But it didn’t follow through when it came to casting trans people; its lead character, Maura, was played by a cis gender male actor, Jeffrey Tambor, who became the first actor to win an Emmy for playing a trans character.
So though Nayfack loved the show, the trans actress, writer and producer, had reservations. “Obviously, my relationship to the show was complicated by the fact that I’m a trans woman who is a leading voice in advocating for trans representation, especially in casting,” she says.
Nayfack, who most recently starred in Hulu’s Difficult People, has come to Transparent after the show suffered a major trauma. In 2017, Tambor was shown the door after an investigation of sexual harassment claims made against him by trans cast and crew (he denies the allegations). Transparent creator Jill Soloway was forced to reconsider the future of a show without its lead. A decision to end earlier than expected, on a feature length finale. As an added twist the show itself would transition into a musical.
The seeds of this radical reimagining were sown when Soloway’s sibling, Faith, tried out songs for a musical version of Transparent at Joe’s Pub in New York last year. Here, they asked Nayfack, a NYC based theatre producer and founder of non profit development organisation, Musical Theatre Factory, to step into the shoes of Maura for one song. This opened up a path into dealing with the now problematic lead character.
The Transparent finale begins by killing Maura off and the remaining Pfeffermans proceed to grieve in various ways. Matriarch Shelly seizes the spotlight and stages a play about their family history. It provides her a safe space to confront her children in song (there’s a great, only-on-Transparent number called Your Boundary is My Trigger). But the play-within-a-show also allows Maura to come back into the picture, reclaiming her from the real life toxicity.
It’s into this role that Nayfack steps. “It felt like a call to duty, an act of restitution that we were setting things right in some way,” she says. “And then I felt like, whoa, like, I’ve been trying to advocate for my community, for a number of years, in the face of this thing. And now I’m going to be the face of this. So that’s crazy.”
But Transparent was in reinvention mode. Shelly asks Nayfack’s character – a local weed dealer or “healer” – to take on the role of young Maura in her play. This new Maura has a graceful new singing voice. She is queerer than before – bald and beautiful, a tower of strength and self knowledge. The power that radiates from a trans actress finally being allowed to live in a trans character’s body burns through the small screen.
Nayfack shares the space with the indomitable Judith Light, who as Shelly, takes centre stage. Not everything else about the finale is as seamless – the Pfefferman kids’ stories are effectively, abruptly parked, for example – but there is a determined effort to right wrongs. When Alexandra Billings, as Davina, sings Let Her Be OK at Maura’s funeral, the song feels like it’s written with concern for the trans community as a whole. Stories of trans kids kicked out of home, without safe spaces to go, shine light on their vulnerabilities in a way the show hasn’t gotten to, or gotten the chance to get to before. In Transparent, the trans experience feels finally centred.
For a long time Nayfack did not think this was possible for herself. She grew up in southern California, where there was no language with which to understand herself as a trans youth. “I existed as an angry gay boy who wanted to be a riot grrl,” she explains. She loved drama and eventually did some performance like drag. But she couldn’t see herself taking centre stage. “Surviving as a man in life was so hard that it was impossible to go be a man on stage. I just couldn’t bear it,” she recalls. “There was certainly no room for me ever to imagine myself as an actress, meaning being a woman who could be on stage and acting. It was a dream I gave up on.”
In 2014, Nayfack made some decisions that would change all that. She crowdfunded her gender confirmation surgery and wrote, directed and starred in One Woman Show, a production about the journey. She followed this up with Post Op, written about the time after her surgery in Thailand and then she combined the two into Manifest Pussy, a show she took on tour in North Carolina in protest of the anti-trans “bathroom Bill” in 2016.
Nayfack wanted to have this safe space for people who felt marginalised in that specific moment. And music was a form of therapy. “There’s something about turning to song in times of great emotion, that is cathartic and healing, and emboldening and joyous,” she says of the Manifest Pussy show, which she is touring on the East and West coast of the U.S. later this year again. “And I come from a big Jewish family where we would burst into song; where it would be totally appropriate for a show tune to unite us all around a tragic or joyous moment.”
Transparent’s way of dealing is through song, collectively. Nayfack hopes the show will ultimately be seen as a cultural moment where women and trans and non-binary people in entertainment reclaimed power. “I hope that Transparent will be an example for how you can do something creative, and fun and triumphant in the face of the violence unleashed by a crumbling patriarchy.”
In this respect, the finale defiantly refuses to let its legacy die, and hands its pioneering trans character back to its community. This is in no small way helped by the trans woman, who finally plays her. “The energy that I brought,” says Nayfack, “It helped Maura’s spirit to cross over.”
Transparent Musical Finale streams on Amazon from Saturday 27th September