When York Walker ’09 noticed a lack of diversity in fine arts, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In finding his passions and following his dreams, it was announced this summer that he would be named the first recipient of the Colman Domingo Award, which creates space and opportunity for upcoming male-identified Black multihyphenated artists.
Walker fell in love with the arts at a young age, being fascinated with going to performances and watching shows about theatre. Growing up in a south suburb of Chicago, he often found himself in the theatre district, wanting to attend productions and dreaming of what his life could be like one day.
When his time came to choose a school, Walker selected Illinois State because the fine arts program appeared to be a good fit for him.
While pursuing his interests, Walker found himself involved in everything theatre, sometimes participating in two to three plays at a time. In addition, he also found a group of people that made him feel more connected to a community—something he had never felt before.
“At ISU, you could find your people,” he said. “I connected with other theatre students and was able to be with people like me and build a community.”
“I especially found that with the students of color,” he added. “We came together.”
When Walker found himself building long-lasting relationships, he noticed few opportunities for students of color within his program.
With the help of fellow acting student Marketta Wilder ’10, he created the Black Actors Guild, an organization that specifically showcased the work of Black playwrights. The organization today is known as the Black Artists’ League.
Walker recalled one semester where many of his Black peers did not receive roles in the University’s rendition of King Hedley II because the play did not have enough parts.
“We decided to do our own King Hedley II,” he said. “We stayed at school over Christmas break, raised money, and put it on the first week of school. It was one of the first times we put something together on our own and didn’t wait for the opportunity. We made it ourselves.”
Upon graduating, Walker accepted an acting apprenticeship in Louisville, Kentucky, where he gained experiences that allowed him to make connections in the world of theatre.
Walker’s aspirations and built connections landed him far from the south Chicago suburb where he grew up. He’s lived in other major cities such as New York City and San Francisco, where he earned a graduate degree in acting from the American Conservatory Theater for Acting.
Walker’s graduate school experience set him up for dream roles that he strongly identified with, one being a lead in The Mystery of Love and Sex in Los Angeles, a tale of a white female and black male who are best friends.
“It was my first lead in a show,” Walker said. “I strongly identified with the character and the things that came along with the role. It was vulnerable, and I had to be open physically and emotionally.”
With the help of this life-changing role, along with other characters Walker has played, he developed a process for his acting. Although every role is different, he finds things that connect him to the character and fills in the rest from there.
Although he had been writing for years, after traveling around the country to act, something in him shifted that made him want to pursue his passion to write. This passion earned him the Colman Domingo Award.
Colman Domingo is an actor, playwright, and director with work in film, stage, and television, having a role on the well-recognized show Fear the Walking Dead. He, along with Vineyard Theatre in New York City, created this award for a Black male or male-identifying artist to provide support and resources to develop new work.
“It’s affirming,” Walker said. “I’ve been writing since graduate school, and it’s hard to get people to see you as anything more than an actor when that’s how you were introduced.”
With this award, Walker will receive a cash stipend, the opportunity to attend multiple workshops, and other developmental opportunities. Those include access to writing and studio space, mentorships, and support from The Vineyard Theatre, which helped Domingo grow into the artist that he is today.
“It seems fitting that we are ready to announce our inaugural recipient during this profound moment of change, when we truly need to hear from African American voices. It is our pleasure to gift this award to York Walker,” Domingo said in a release put out by The Vineyard Theatre early this summer.
Walker, being the first recipient of this award, agrees that now, more than ever, Black narratives need to be shared for this country to reconcile with its history. He plans to tell stories of Black and Black LGBTQ people because not only can he write them, but he has lived through them.
As a Black gay actor, Walker is no stranger to adversity. It was not until graduate school that he finally felt that he could be himself.
“One of the hardest things for me in school was that I had this voice that lent itself to a leading actor, but there were no out gay Black men that were leading men,” he said.
Here was one of Walker’s biggest fears when he was younger: “If I come out of the closet and live my truth, am I committing career suicide?”
He still sees this as a problem in the industry but wants to use this award to provide the opportunities and roles for gay Black men that he did not have. The shows he has participated in that come from the perspective of Black writers have been the most rewarding and it is his hope that he can join those ranks.
“A lot of times, especially historically, we get left out completely,” he said. “My goal and mission as a writer is to place Black and Black LGBTQ people at the center of the storytelling.”
When Walker helped found Black Actors Guild at Illinois State, it was the beginning of his journey to create opportunities and write stories for those whose voices are silenced. It prepared him for a world where sometimes you can’t wait for someone to give you the opportunity, but you must do it yourself.
He feared that there was no space for him, his voice, or his stories, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is absolutely space for individual people, their passions, and their talents.
When Walker thinks about his passion for writing and what it has taken for him to get here, he says this, “It feels like part of my mission and life work to tell stories. I do this because I literally could not imagine doing anything else.”