Zakiya Young, Pittsburgh, always loved to perform. Growing up, she took dance classes, was a cheerleader, performed in school musicals and sang in the church choir. She came by her abilities naturally: her mom acted and her dad sang and she grew up in an artistic household.
Even with a performance background, Zakiya didn’t initially plan to pursue acting. She went to the University of Pittsburgh to study medicine.
But after two semesters, she realized she wasn’t passionate about her chosen field. She didn’t experience the same spark she felt when she was in front of a crowd, performing with the school’s dance team. “I thought, maybe I should be an actress,” Zakiya says. “Maybe I should just try it.”
She switched her major to communications and began searching for opportunities to hone her acting skills. After performing in the University of Pittsburgh’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” she attended an open call audition for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, which was casting the touring production of “Casper the Musical,” starring famed Broadway actress Chita Rivera.
Zakiya landed the role of Bettina’s mom in the production, and through the connections she made in the show, she was able to relocate to New York City to pursue theater. But a future in the industry wasn’t always a given. Zakiya took a two-year break from the business to make sure it was something she still wanted to pursue. Sure enough, she still felt the call of the stage, leading her to an open audition for Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid”—a show that would set the trajectory of her career.
She was cast as part of the ensemble in the original cast of the musical for the show’s entire two-year run. “It changed everything,” she says. With “The Little Mermaid” added to her resume, Zakiya began to audition for leading roles.
A defining moment came in 2010, when she was cast as Lois Lane in the Dallas Theater Center’s “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman!” Zakiya was the first black actress to play the role of Lois Lane in any Superman-related project. “It was really exciting to have a Lois Lane that was black—it was a big deal,” she says.
While in Dallas, Zakiya began a tradition of visiting the local Tri Delta chapter of whatever city she was performing in. She toured both the Theta Kappa chapter house at Southern Methodist University and Tri Delta’s Executive Office, then headquartered in Arlington.
Casting offices began calling her in for plays, and she ended up booking her first Broadway play, “Stick Fly,” produced by Alicia Keys and starring Tracie Thoms, Dule Hill and Mekhi Phifer. Zakiya found herself in the world of Hollywood actors who have a theater background, something she described as being in “theater boot camp.
The more she worked with and learned from actors who had done TV and film, the more Zakiya wanted to explore that world. Feeling like she had accomplished all she could in New York City, she decided to relocate to Los Angeles, where she continued to act in stage productions while pursuing TV roles.
Then, she landed a role she had been wanting to play: Tendikayi in the play “Familiar,” written by Danai Gurira, who starred in “Black Panther” and “The Walking Dead.”
“Familiar”—which ran January through March 2019 at The Globe Theater in San Diego—shares the American immigrant experience through the lens of a couple from Zimbabwe and their daughter, Tendikayi, who is engaged to be married and insists on a traditional African wedding ceremony.
Zakiya had originally auditioned for “Familiar” in New York City, but didn’t get the part. “It wasn’t until I played the role that I realized I wasn’t ready to play it then,” says Zakiya. “It happened at the right time.”
For Zakiya, the appeal of “Familiar” is the positive portrayal of strong, intelligent women. “I loved that the women are all strong women,” she says. “You don’t usually get to see strong women where they’re not a caricature or mocked.” The cast of the play is also predominately women, something Zakiya says you don’t see very often in theater.
The play and the role, which Zakiya says is still in her bones, proved to be an inspiration. “It inspired me to start writing—to write the roles I want to play and to give that to other actresses so we’re not stuck doing the same types of plays we’ve always done.”