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Nik Walker On Black Theater, Gratitude And The New Musical, ‘Spamalot’

Nik Walker On Black Theater, Gratitude And The New Musical, ‘Spamalot’
Photo Credit: Coco Jourdana

Nik Walker’s creativity knows no bounds. In addition to appearing in Broadway productions such as Hamilton, Ain’t Too Proud, and Motown the Musical, he’s also had roles in Blue Bloods, Law and Order SVU, and the upcoming AppleTV+ film, The Instigators. As a writer and podcaster, this Boston native has been using his talents to craft new content, and promote diversity in the entertainment industry.

Now, Walker can be seen in SPAMALOT, a musical comedy which draws from the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In this stage play, he portrays the narcissistic and hilarious Sir Galahad, a role that he’s extremely proud of to say the least. Throughout his tenure as a creative, Walker has accomplished many things, and he understands that being thankful for such things is of the utmost importance.

“This is such a rare moment, and I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have a lot of those moments, but trying to just appreciate them as the moment,” Walker says. “But this one is special just because literally half the people that taught me how to do this are in the show with me, and we just get to play. I don’t mean this to sound cliche or over hyperbole, but it’s kind of beyond exciting. There’s just a lot of gratitude for this one.”

Ahead of SPAMALOT’s Broadway opening on November 16, Walker sat down with ESSENCE to discuss his contributions to the production, the coveted Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, people of color in theater, and much more.

ESSENCE: Can you tell me a little bit about the role you play in SPAMALOT and just in general, how do you prepare for your roles?

Nik Walker: Absolutely. So SPAMALOT, if you know or don’t know, it’s Monty Python—the preeminent comedy troupe out of the UK formed back in the ’60s and ’70s. They all came from different walks of life within the comedy scene over there, across the pond, but came together and it’s this very absurdist, dry humor, almost like Looney tunes with a British flair. That’s honestly the best way I can describe it. Very intelligent if you’re listening for it, but at the outset also just extremely silly, nothing taken seriously. So, we say that our show is about King Arthur searching for the Holy Grail, but when I tell you that that plot is so thin, it’s like, yes, it’s that, but it’s more just like an excuse for the brilliant writing of Monty Python to shine through. And quite frankly, more so for us to just make you laugh.

I can honestly say, every second of this show is constructed and crafted to make you laugh. And so who I play is Sir Galahad, who’s one of King Arthur’s knights, and he’s pretty narcissistic. He’s just very obsessed with his own looks. He has beautiful flowing golden dreadlocks in our production, and he’s just kind of, loves staring at himself and being just kind of an alluring crazy man. And then everybody—except for King Arthur or leads—we all play four different characters. Because that’s kind of the Monty Python tradition is that everyone would play like everybody in their sketches. So we do the same thing in the show. And in terms of preparing for it, I think that’s kind of, again, kind of going back to what I started this conversation with. The beauty of this thing for me is that because it is my friends. First of all, I made a list of a bunch of comedians that I have even a glancing connection to. And I just called them up and was like, “Hey, just talk to me about what comedy is.” Not because I don’t know what comedy is, but just because I wanted to use the opportunity to learn and just see what I could learn from that.

So people like Mario Cantone and Ramy Youssef and John Braylock gave me just a lot of really beautiful gems about what comedy is and how it breaks down for them. There’s so much improv in this show, so building that trust between each other so that we can kind of steer the car left and somebody, like in the rest of us will follow along with it. And I will say the thing that’s been most refreshing for me in this preparation is you all of a sudden realize this is not too heavy, but the world is going through some stuff at the moment, but also just as a black man, we are rarely afforded the opportunity to be childish. We have to be so aware and on our guard and prepared at any given moment for anything to happen.

That’s amazing, man. Also, I heard the news today that SPAMALOT will be included in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade this year, and that’s something that we all probably grew up watching at least once in our life. How do you feel about that news and are you excited about that?

It’s crazy. So, my mom is from Little Rock, and my cousins are all from Dallas. And so the idea of Broadway or theater was something that’s so removed from my family. They all knew about it and they all, now, very much are in it because I’m in it. But they didn’t know anything about Broadway, but they knew what Macy’s was, and they know what the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is. And so it’s the joy of getting to do this thing that I know my family back home will appreciate and love and get to see me and all that stuff. When I was coming up in this thing, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, playing roles like this.

You spoke about the importance of people that look like you seeing you. I know there have been black representation in theater in the past too, but it just seems like today with MJ the Musical, The Wiz, and Hamilton it seems like it’s a great time for people of color in theater. How do you feel about the state of black theater now, and where do you see it going in the future?

I have so many thoughts that just came to my head, and I’ll try to condense them so you don’t have to listen to me drawing on about this—but it’s such a great question. What we do is at the intersection of so many things; art and culture, art and commerce, and the art of it is self-expression. That’s what theater is, that’s what film and TV is, right? It’s people getting up there and just showing you who they are. That’s what stories are. Who you are is deep. Who you are is where your family is from. Who you are is where you went to school. Who you are is who your first kiss was. There’s so many things that go into who you are. I think what excites me about the state of Black theater right now is that the definition of who we are has finally started to expand.

You could have me in a dreadlock wig and a British accent being a knight in King Arthur’s Court on one side of the street, on the other side of the street, you got my boy Leslie doing Purlie Victorious, the Ossie Davis play. Down the street and starting in March you’re going to have The Wiz. You’re going to have so many different facets of black life, all of it being us, but none of us handcuffed to anybody else’s definition of blackness, except for what we want to put forth. And that is such a special thing. I will never take that for granted, because I remember when I got out in this industry, I was very much told who I was supposed to be. I was told that, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Hollywood Shuffle, but that movie’s not a lie, right? That is very much for a long time what this thing was.

For those doors to be open and for the kids coming up after my generation to just have those doors being open as a given. I teach when I’m not doing Broadway—they’ve been silly enough to give me a professorship at NYU—an adjunct professorship, and I hope I’m not destroying these kids’ minds. But it’s so wonderful for me to watch, especially my students of color, and just watch the freedom with which they move about the theatrical space. Truly, nobody can tell them who they are. And that was something that for me as a kid, was so hard. I was always trying to fit into whatever box would keep me safe and make sure that I wasn’t scaring anyone because I’m a six-foot two black man, and I don’t want to make anyone mad. I don’t want to, how can I just be the most amenable thing I can be? And it’s like right now, theater, we ain’t got to do that no more.

You can be whoever you want to be, and you can show whatever size of yourself you choose to show. And I will fight. I will fight for that to continue to grow for as long as I can, because it is just such a refreshing thing for me.

Patrice O’Neal, Bill Burr, New Edition, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, the list goes on. What do you think it is about Boston that all these talented people–yourself included—emerge from?

Boston is, and I want to be clear, I love my hometown. It is the realest city. It’s like Pittsburgh, it’s like Chicago. There’s something so important about, like we talked today about the evaporation of the middle class, and Boston, it’s middle classes, workers, it’s people who have been there for generations and have endured so much. I think that the thing about artists and success, success of any kind in my mind is endurance. Talent is great, right? Talent gets you halfway there, but it truly is the patience to just be there, to sit in the muck and keep going. The idea that one failure does not take you off the boat. My boy, Tory Bullock, was integral in getting the Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation statue removed.

He was the one who first brought that to light. He’d been walking by that statue every day since he was like, you know, at five years old. And if you don’t know what that statue was, it was Abraham Lincoln kind of being this wonderful, benevolent savior to this slave on his knees. And he walked by the statue every day, and it took him until he was in his thirties to finally get the groundswell to help get this thing removed and get a new statue put in place. And that’s Boston to me. Boston is a city that’s like, “It ain’t going to be easy, but we’re going to stick in it until it’s done.” And I think that that’s what helps so many people come out of it successfully, is just that belief in not only oneself, but in the community that will back you as you stick in the mud for whatever length of time it takes. Boston is “don’t give up.” That’s what Boston Strong means to me. Don’t give up. And that’s, I think, what has helped me in my career, for sure.

You briefly spoke about your professorship at NYU earlier, and you’ve been in countless plays and television programs; plus you’re a writer as well as a podcaster. So this creative behemoth that you are, is this something that was always in you, or was it something that you picked up along the way?

Well, I’ll tell you something. It all goes back to a little condition I like to call ADHD. No, but like seriously, I think that that was the thing. I proudly say I have ADHD, and I’ve learned to live with it. And it’s something that very much is a huge part of my life. But when I was a kid, I couldn’t focus on anything except for stories. As soon as you put a movie in front of me, that was it. All of a sudden, my attention went just right to that thing. So stories have always been my comfort food. I think that especially as I grew older, and especially, I’m just being real with you, especially as I came into my own as a man, as a black man, as all these things, this was the space that I could always go to.

The world was going to say whatever it felt like saying to me that day. But I knew that if I was creating something, that’s a space that’s mine. Where I set the pace. Where I can be as kind to myself as I need to be that day. And so it very much became this respite. And I will say, you brought up Hamilton before. The joy of that has been finding other people who came up like that. Other people who were kind of that, like I grew up in Boston, which let me be very clear, I love my city. I will stand with Boston until the day I die. Also, Boston is not the least racist city in the world.

I mean, it is what it is. So, I was a token for a lot of my life. And only when I came to Broadway, I started to meet other people who came up like me. And now that James Iglehart is in the show playing King Arthur, we connected because we both realized we were the only kids in our high schools and our elementary schools who were reading comic books, right? Because this was before MCU and all this stuff. This was back when it wasn’t so cool. So I had two, three strikes against me. I had my ADHD, I had my nerdom, and I had the fact that I was the only black kid in a white school. So I think that these things kind of lead you to a life of just like, “How can I stand on who I am? How can I be proud of who I am? How can I find ways to connect with other people who are experiencing these same things that I am?”

And theater, very much for me, and storytelling, very much for me is where that, as you call it, the creative behemoth came from or not came from, but what kind of was the solution to the equation. It was the space where I could go to just be, to just exist without anyone’s opinion of me, without anyone’s perception of me. I could just be. And that has always been something. And even now with my wife, I think that it’s no coincidence that I married an actor who quite frankly, is a much better actor than I am. She’s incredible. But another storyteller who understands that. There’s just something so comforting when you find your community. That’s what my creative outlets have given me.

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