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In Depth: Zakiya Young Stars in Disgraced at the Goodman Theatre

Broadway actress and singer Zakiya Young is currently starring in DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Kimberly Senior at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.  From its website:

Amir Kapoor has turned his back on his upbringing in pursuit of the American Dream—he’s married to a beautiful woman, lives in a luxurious Manhattan apartment and is eyeing a lucrative promotion at his powerful law firm. But when Amir hosts a dinner party for his African American co-worker and her Jewish husband, the initially pleasant evening erupts into a volatile argument over race, religion and class in the modern world.

Broadway Black had an opportunity to learn more about Young’s character, her background, her first Broadway show, and what’s next!

BroadwayBlack (BB): Discuss the role of Jory and what nuance is brought to the character because she is Black. How does her race affect her interaction with the other characters?

Zakiya Young (ZY): Jory is very complex and I love playing this character. She’s a smart, successful lawyer – specializing in mergers and acquisitions at a prestigious law firm. Jory is confident, funny and suffers no fools. She does whatever it takes to succeed at work – which includes assimilating into white culture and “playing the game.” She’s the epitome of the American Dream.

Jory is very conservative – she believes in order, not justice – which is something that I struggled with at first. However, it’s not my job to judge the character. It’s my job to share her story with honesty and integrity.

Being a black woman makes Jory a little bit more sensitive to the tone of the evening. Every once in a while she’ll remind the party guests that she’s a woman of color but she tends to only use her race as a trump card to win arguments. She also notices things about her friend Amir during the dinner party that the white characters might not pick up on – micro-aggressions toward Amir about race/culture.

BB: Disgraced is officially the most produced play of the 2015/2016 Season, only the third time a playwright of color has occupied the number one spot. What does it mean to you to be involved in the production?

ZY: I’ve been trying to do this play since it was off-Broadway. I haven’t been able to forget it since I first read the script. Ayad has crafted such a bold, powerful and honest piece and it’s such an honor to be telling this story at this time – with this cast and creative team – at The Goodman. It seems as if our country is about to collapse under theweight of misunderstandings and assumptions about race, religion and social class. We need to go beyond being politically correct, have the tough conversations, ask questions, and really listen to each other. This play is an amazing way to begin that conversation because it forces you to think about the issues presented.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.43.05 AMBB: Both of your parents are artists. How did having that background influence your upbringing? Do you consult with them about auditions? Do they provide advice or notes, more or differently than a non-performing parent would?

My dad has an amazing singing voice – he’s a bari-tenor- and until very recently he sang in the church choir every Sunday since he was a little boy. My mom did plays in college, was the president of the drama guild at Fayetteville State and still performs dramatic monologues at church.

Our house was and still is filled with music and dancing. They put my sister and I in dance classes, piano lessons, we both played in our school bands, sang in school choirs, church choirs etc.

My fondest childhood memories center around art – waking up and hearing my dad singing downstairs as he cooked us breakfast, having family sing-alongs in the car as we drove down south every August, dance parties in the living room, hearing my mom recite her favorite poems by Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. They took us to many different artistic events around the country. Even when we were on vacation in the middle of nowhere, my parents would find some kind of artistic event for us to attend.  

My sister Jamila and I often sang together and I accompanied us on the piano. I did a benefit concert at my parents’ church a few years back and it was awesome to have my dad and sister join me for a song.

I do talk to my parents about certain auditions – especially if I’m in final callbacks for a project I’m really excited about. My mom always sends me encouraging texts before my auditions.   Sometimes I ask for advice and sometimes they just give it. It’s the beautiful thing about family – they keep me humble and tell me the truth in love. My mom is super positive and enthusiastic – she sandwiches a suggestion between positive statements. Whereas my dad – hearing me practicing the piano for example – would come in and say “Not bad. Almost there! Keep practicing.” But they’re very proud of me and it’s a blessing to have parents who support me and challenge me to do my very best.

Also, if I’m visiting them in Pennsylvania and I get a last minute audition that I have to put on tape, I know that I can ask any of them to help me and they’ll all be great readers for the scene – especially my mom.

They’ve seen all of my shows and I would not be able to do any of this without the love and support of my family.

BB: You’re both an actress and a singer. As you progress in your career, do you find yourself gravitating toward one or the other?

ZY: I’m grateful to be able to do both plays and musicals and I honestly don’t have a preference. I just love performing. I’m especially grateful for the casting directors who saw a resume full of musicals but took a chance and started calling me in for plays. However, when I’m in a play I do find myself searching for karaoke opportunities or a piano I can play during my downtime.

BB: You booked your first Broadway show without an agent. Quite a feat! Why did you decide to go that route? Would you recommend this to other aspiring actors?

ZY: I never expected it to work out the way it did – but I’m super happy with how things unfolded. I took a two and a half year break from auditioning. I was burnt out and needed time off to figure out whether or not my heart was still in pursuing this career, so I took an office job. When I started thinking about performing again, I went to an EPA (Equity Principal Audition) because I didn’t have representation at the time. It was day 2 or 3 of EPAs for the original Broadway company of The Little Mermaid. I figured it was already cast and would be a “safe” introduction back into the audition room so I went to the EPA, signed up for a time, went to a voice lesson then came back and sang. A few months later I got a call asking me to come back in for an ensemble audition. A few callbacks later I got the call from Tara Rubin’s office telling me I had booked the job. It was right before Christmas and I was absolutely overjoyed. It was such a wonderful moment.

Would I recommend this to other aspiring actors? Absolutely. Equity calls are wonderful – they really are looking for talent at those auditions. Don’t believe people who say they’re a waste of time – you never know who you’re going to meet in the room. And regardless of whether or not you have representation, if you can’t get an appointment for a certain role, go to the EPA or the chorus call. There’s always a way to be seen by different casting offices and I’m grateful to our union for providing those opportunities.

BB: You’ve been on Broadway. You’ve worked with amazing actors and directors, including Kenny Leon. What is next for you? What is on your bucket list of accomplishments?

ZY: What’s next? My managers and I have our eyes on a few projects and we’re excited for the future. Since The Little Mermaid and Stick Fly, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to play leading roles in musicals and do plays at some of the top theaters around the country. I’m ready and excited to take things to the next level. Playing a principal role in a Broadway musical or doing another Broadway play are on my list of what I’d love to tackle next. I’ve also started doing some television and voiceover work so I’d love to continue doing that – maybe venture into film?

I do have a list of artists I’d love to work with: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ava Duvernay, Lee Daniels, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, George C. Wolfe and Joe Morton are some of the artists on that list.

I am incredibly grateful to do what I love – and I’m excited to see what doors God opens. His plans have greatly exceeded mine so I’m just going to stay ready and open for whatever is next.

BB: What advice do you have for aspiring and emerging performers?

Advice? Be early and prepared for auditions, rehearsals and performances. You never want a casting office to stop calling you in because you’re late and/or unprepared for auditions. And be nice to everyone you encounter. Don’t just be nice to the directors, producers, casting directors and actors you look up to. Say hello to the reader at the audition, the janitorial staff at the theater, the wranglers, costumers, security staff. It’s easier to get a bad reputation than to build a good one and believe me – directors that are unfamiliar with your work will contact people from your past for feedback on how you carry yourself in the workplace. That feedback may or may not get you the job.

DISGRACED plays through October 25 at the Goodman Theatre. For tickets and more information, click HERE.

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