Actress and activist, Shakina, made television history on NBC’s Connecting as the first trans person to play a series regular on a network comedy. She had a memorable role in Amazon’s GLAAD Award-winning Transparent Musicale Finale, which she helped write and produce, as well as playing the scene-stealing trans truther Lola on Hulu’s Difficult People. Her Drama League Award-winning play, Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club—with a stellar trans cast featuring Kate Bornstein, Angelica Ross, and herself—premiered on Audible in 2020 in collaboration with Williamstown Theatre Festival. As the founding Artistic Director of Musical Theatre Factory, Shakina has helped to develop hundreds of new musicals, including Michael R. Jackson’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop, along with her own ingeniously titled autobiographical glam rock odyssey, Manifest Pussy.
This Monday, February, 6th 2023 at 10pm ET/PT, 9pm CT, Shakina makes her debut as writer and director on NBC’s Quantum Leap reboot with an episode celebrating trans youth, “Let Them Play”, which sees the show’s hero Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee) leap into the midst of the Mendéz family as they try to help their trans daughter Gia (Josielyn Aguilera). She has dreams of playing on her high school basketball team, but has been benched all season due to school politics. Ben leaps into Gia’s dad, who also happens to be her basketball coach. In order to put right what was wrong, he must help his school colleagues and adminsitrators, fellow parents, and his own family understand the importance of welcoming Gia onto the team, or lose her forever. Trans guest stars include D’Lo as the basketball referee, Trace Lysette as youth counselor Kate, along with Jacoba Post, Olabisi Kovabel, Rain Yabut, and Shakina herself as performance artist Dottie.
This is a stand alone episode, so even if you haven’t seen the first part of the season yet, we urge all our readers to tune in with their families and friends to support and be part of this significant moment in television history. It’s meaningful and touching, but also a lot fun. If you do miss it, you can catch up with this episode the next day on Peacock, along with the rest of the season.
Shakina spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about her inspirations for and approach to writing the episode, what resonates with her about the ethos of Quantum Leap, casting Josielyn Aguilera and other trans talent including Trace Lysette, and her favorite LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: before we get on to this episode specifically, I wondered what your relationship to the original Quantum Leap was and what memories you have of watching it?
Shakina: “I was a fan of the original series. I remember watching it with my family, cuddled up on the couch in the living room. It was one of those shows that we would all watch together. It was so interesting to think about how Quantum Leap was ahead of its time when it came to bringing up issues of queerness. There was a really famous episode about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that aired in 1992 that I remember seeing when I was 10 years old, sitting on the couch with my family. So to now be continuing the legacy of Quantum Leap by introducing this new episode that centers trans kids and their families feels really full circle.”
We are around the same age and I can vividly remember sitting in my friend’s house watching that same episode. Thinking back, the first positive gay representation I encountered was in that episode Quantum Leap. Did you go back and watch it when you were writing this episode?
“I went back and watched a lot of the original episodes when I first started in the writers’ room. It’s funny, because we hold on to the good things, but there are some aspects that don’t age as well. More than anything, there’s an essential Quantum Leap quality that is about hopefulness and brotherhood and unity and dissolving difference. That’s the underlying current that rides through all of Quantum Leap and I felt like I could just jump right into that. That’s my wheelhouse. So whether it was this particular episode, or any of the ways that I contributed to the other episodes throughout the season, that’s the part of Quantum Leap where I’m like, of course I got this job and I’m in this room, because this is what I stand for as a person and this is what the show stands for. So that made a lot of sense.”
Give me an insight into your approach to writing and directing episode 12, “Let Them Play”.
“Well, I had pitched this episode in my interview, so I was already brainstorming the moving parts and pieces and the basic character setup. The wonderful thing about Quantum Leap is that every episode we get to tackle a different genre and we get to tell a full story; beginning, middle, and end. You don’t get to do that on a lot of episodic TV. So I knew that I wanted to create the episode that felt like everyone’s favorite teen sports movie. I was really interested in gender swapping teen sports movies like Ladybugs, She’s the Man, and Just One of the Guys. They’re a really iconic sub-genre. I think that one of the places where I excel as an artist is taking these familiar forms that people know and love and injecting them with new queerness and a new critique on what they were maybe embedded in in their original form. I brought that to the team and said, ‘here’s my pitch: it’s a teen sports movie in 45 minutes, with a trans kid at the center. Ben leaps into her dad, who is also her coach.’ And with that we went off and running.”
Josielyn Aguilera plays Gia, who is the trans girl at the center of the episode. How involved were you in the casting and tell me a bit about what she brings to the role.
“We actually had an incredible casting process, not only with the role of Gia, because there are also a lot of other trans kids and trans people in the in the episode. I wanted to make sure that we put out as wide a casting call as possible, not just for the episode, but also so that trans kids could know that there were opportunities out there for them and so that NBC could start building a database of trans actors. It’s all part of a larger initiative here. We had over 200 submissions for the role of Gia, which was so beautiful to see and I wept through so many of them. These beautiful trans young people are putting their heart and soul into these auditions. But Josielyn Aguilera—and viewers will see this—she just has this radiance in her heart and her smile and in her eyes that shines through the camera and the screen. She’s also such a down-home girl and so at ease and that’s what I really wanted to make our audiences feel. This issue is so touchy and hot button, I just wanted this episode to put people at ease and be like, kids are kids, let’s let them have a good time. Let’s believe them when they tell us who they are and let’s find ways to show up for them that make their lives safer.”
For a lot of people encountering this episode, all they will know about trans kids is from news headlines. We hear the principle say “cultural war” at one point and other characters talk about Gia playing basketball as being “political”. How intentional was it to humanize some of the sensationalized media coverage, bringing it down to watching these characters, and reminding viewers that these are actually real people with real lives, not headlines?
“People can turn on the news if they want headlines, they can go to Reddit if they want to read theory and opinions, or they can watch a TED talk. But this is Quantum Leap. This is an entertaining, inspirational thought and heart provoking show that tries to keep viewers on the edge of their seat because it’s a 10 o’clock prime-time show, but it also tries to make the world a better place episode by episode. The nuance of the storytelling was really about invitation, accessibility, and bringing more people to the table, even the transphobic characters. They grow and they learn and they’re not being judged, we’re trying to understand. The idea here is to create this superhighway of empathy for trans kids and their families, so that we can try to combat some of the harmful rhetoric and legislation that’s being passed without any understanding of the lived experience.”
What was the significance of setting the episode in in 2012?
“Well, there are a couple things that were interesting about that time period. That’s when Jazz Jennings first made a big splash because she wanted to play basketball at her school. So that was connected, even though we don’t reference it in the episode, because it was a trans cultural moment. I grew up as a trans kid in the 90s when there were no trans kids, quite frankly. It was very dangerous to be a queer youth and I wanted to show that this has been an issue that we have known about and been working on for a long time. Because we don’t have societal support as trans people, especially for trans youth, we lose track of the progress that we make in the movement, generation by generation, and we reinvent the wheel and we blame our elders for not doing enough and we get frustrated with the kids for not doing enough, because we don’t understand that our cycle of progress keeps getting interrupted by people who wield hatred against us. In a lot of ways, I wanted to lay the path of our history out so that people watching today can understand—whether it’s through what happens in 2012, or through Trace Lysette’s monologue in the episode—that we have a history of this work and of this fight. Hopefully people who watch the show will be like, ‘Man, we were doing that in 2012? We should really be over this by now.’ That’s the goal. So we’re rewriting the past to change the future.”
Trace Lysette is wonderful in this, she plays youth counselor Kate, and there’s a really touching scene where Kate and Gia are connecting and Kate talks about her past. Why did you want Trace for that role and did you bring some of her own history into the writing?
“Absolutely. Trace came up through the ballroom houses as a voguer and she also was a basketball player, so she’s a bball girl and a ballroom girl. She’s such a legend to me and a dear friend and she’s someone who I feel has been unfairly treated in our industry. She faced retaliation for coming out against unfair treatment and I wanted to honor her by giving her a centerpiece role that just let her be her beautiful, glorious self. So that was an important thing for me personally, because I believe in Trace Lysette and I want the world to see more of her. Then in terms of that intergenerational, trans parenting or that auntie relationship that defines our community, that’s not something that we get to see on TV, especially not late-night prime time. It felt really important to see these two women of different generations talking about what they’ve had to go through to be themselves and I hope that it can help build some intergenerational bridges with the viewers.”
Mason Alexander Park, who was incredible as Desire in Sandman, has a recurring character on Quantum Leap, Ian. They have a poignant scene with Addison, played by Caitlin Bassett, in this episode where they talk about attempting to take their own life when they were younger, but they’re also looking at footage of where Ben is in 2012 of trans kids joyfully dancing together. They have that line, “trans kids are magic” and it made me think about you writing lines like that, and then getting to see them spoken by Mason, that must be pretty meaningful.
“Yeah, I cried a lot. ‘Trans kids are magic and when you give them permission to shine they light up a room.’ That’s what Ian says, and it’s the truth. I was that magic trans kid and I had my light stripped from me and I had to go through a lot to get that light back. So did Mason, and so did a lot of other people. There are generations of trans young people who we never got to meet, who never got to grow up and share their gifts with the world and that has to change. These young people today are so gifted and so brilliant and they see the world in such remarkable ways and if they don’t know they’re supported, they might take themselves out of the game. It’s really important for every adult to ensure the life and support of all these kids, trans and cis. Gia has a line that I wrote in the episode where she says, ‘you’re the adults, why can’t you make school safe for everybody?’ That’s the question that we really should be asking. It’s not about, ‘should we let this trans kid play on the sports team or not?’ It should be, ‘why are our schools unsafe?’ And ‘how can we fix that?’ Those are the questions that adults should be asking.”
Meanwhile, schools are genuinely unsafe in many ways.
Exactly the point, in many, many ways; gun violence, sexual violence, drugs, and bigotry. It’s our job to define how we educate our youth and I think this episode takes that on.”
Talking about the great cast, you play Dottie, a really fun character who reveals some crucial information in the season’s ongoing narrative. What was it like to play her?
“Super fun. I channeled some Lola from Difficult People and, and Frankie from Jessica Jones, other behind the counter characters that I’ve played. I felt that in such a heavy, emotional episode we needed some levity, we needed that Shakespearean clown to make a fool of herself and I was like, ‘well, that’s me!’ She does this spoken word piece that has a lot of truth to it, even though it’s foolish. I got to do a couple scenes with Ernie Hudson, who’s such a dreamboat and such an icon of my childhood. So to be acting with him and making a fool of myself in front of him and Nanrisa Lee was just perfect.”
One last question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“I have to say Paris is Burning. The iconic documentary about the ballroom culture in New York in the 80s. That defined a lot of my life and early friendships.”
By James Kleinmann
Quantum Leap episode 12 “Let Them Play” airs on NBC on Monday, February 6th, 2023 at 10pm ET/PT, 9pm CT. New episodes of Quantum Leap air Mondays 10/9c on NBC, streaming next day on Peacock.