Four Questions With PPF Playwright York Walker

Tania Thompson
 | Apr 19, 2021
York Walker
Playwright York Walker

South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) has been a launching pad for ​nearly 150 plays and playwrights, including David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel Qui Nguyen's Vietgone and Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee.

The first of the five readings at the 2021 digital festival is Covenant by York Walker. The story is about blues guitarist Johnny “Honeycomb” James, who returns home to his small Georgia town where rumors fly that he may have sold his soul to the devil to attain his musical genius. But in this twisty folk-horror drama, jealousy, distrust and superstition determine Honeycomb’s fate—even if the devil does play a part.

In an email exchange, Walker talked about his favorite places to write, the moment he knew he wanted to be a playwright, his best find at Ikea and more.

Walker at Work: Lucille's in Harlem and his home office.Walker Work Spaces

About York Walker

He’s an award-winning writer based in Harlem, New York. Walker is the inaugural recipient of the Vineyard Theatre's Colman Domingo Award, where he is currently an artist in residence. He is also a member of Marcus Gardley's New Wave Writer's Workshop. His work includes Holcomb & Hart (Victory Garden's New Plays For A New Year Festival), Asè (Harlem9, Harlem Stage, and Lucille Lortel Theatre's Consequences digital series), The Séance (Winner of the John Singleton Short Film Competition, 48 Hours… in Harlem), Covenant (Fire This Time Festival, Access Theatre’s 4 Flights Up Festival, Arizona Theatre Company's Digital Play Series), White Shoes (Fire This Time Festival), Summer Of ’63 (The Actors Company Theatre’s New TACTics Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Apprentice Reading Series) and Of Dreams To Come (American Conservatory Theatre’s New Work Series). York received his MFA in acting from American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

What’s your favorite place to write?

York Walker: My favorite place to write pre-pandemic was a little coffee shop in Harlem called Lucille’s. It's very chill and, in the spring, they have the windows open to let in the breeze. It's such a peaceful environment to write in that I would often lose track of time and be there for hours. In the evenings, it turns into a bar, which is great because you can stay as late as you want to write. Post-pandemic, I write in my room. Since I was spending so much time at home this year, I bought a desk from Ikea that makes me feel very fancy when I sit down to work on something.

As a kid, did you read any books in secret?

YW: I was a pretty voracious reader as a kid, so I didn't have to read anything in secret. Everywhere I went, I had a book glued to my hand. It wasn't until my teachers forced us to read in school that I had to start keeping secrets. For some reason, the idea that someone was requiring me to read made me stop reading altogether. I think it was because it felt like work instead of something I did for fun. I got through most of middle and high school with SparkNotes—that was the part I had to keep a secret because if my Mom ever found out I wasn't doing my assignments, it would not have been good. Haha!

What set you on the path to playwriting?

YW: I realized that I wanted to be a playwright when I was in graduate school for acting in 2012. There was a freedom in writing that I had never really experienced while acting. I think part of it was the level of control I had over the work I was making. I could literally write what I wanted to see on stage and I found that to be really empowering.

What play changed your life?

YW: Tarell Alvin McCraney's Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet completely changed my life. I saw it at Steppenwolf in Chicago and it was the first time I truly saw myself on stage. I was in the process of coming out of the closet and it was so comforting and affirming to see a character on stage expressing exactly what I was going through. I was feeling really isolated and alone in that period of my life, but seeing that show reminded me that, when it was all said and done, I would be ok. I think all really good plays have a way of doing that.

What should audiences know about Covenant?

YW: One of the big inspirations for Covenant is the myth of blues musician Robert Johnson. It was said that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to attain his musical genius. The idea that maybe the devil could exist and grant you whatever your heart desired in exchange for your soul was fascinating to me. It felt like a great entry point into a story about the power that our secrets and beliefs have in our lives. But beyond all of that, I think it's just exciting to imagine being in a theatre as the lights go down to hear a good, old-fashioned scary story.

Watch this video interview with Walker for #PPFPlaywrights.

Learn more about Covenant and the 2021 Pacific Playwrights Festival.