From Cenla to the Great White Way

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From Cenla to the Great White Way
Shira Kaplan

Broadway audiences may now know him as Malik Akil, but in Central Louisiana, we’ve known him for years as Malik Victorian, the talent close to our hearts.  I sat down to speak with Malik at a cozy coffee shop in Harlem. An observer might have wondered who this glamorous guy is. An art gallery manager? His trendy, fitted turtleneck certainly suggests that. A writer? No, his tailored winter coat is too chic. Ah, an actor, of course.

 

The coffee shop was full of millennials working on their screenplays or dissertations, but when Malik breezed through the door, one couldn’t help but notice the inquisitive eyes drawn to him. He’s the picture of a New York theatre actor: scarf, fedora, fashionable jeans, and a kind smile.

 

From Cenla to the Great White WayThe origin of Malik’s acting journey began unusually: with a bout of stage fright. When Malik was in preschool, he was chosen for the starring role of “Peter Rabbit” in his school play, of course wearing a special costume. Malik reminisces, “The kids start singing, so I go to start my entrance, but then suddenly I start sobbing. It wasn’t until my dad took the rabbit costume off of me, tears dried up, that I ran to the mic and started singing.” As a performer with bottomless depth and truth now, I am not surprised that even young Malik wanted to strip away any artifice before baring his truth. No matter that this particular truth involved carrots.

 

 

Following that first public performance, Malik explored his talents further. He explained, “I was always into theatrical things. I danced at church, I did drill team—things that had an artist’s flair.” The formal training, though, didn’t begin until Malik’s mother saw a life-changing newspaper ad.  “Around 6th grade, my mom was looking in the newspaper and saw there were acting classes being offered by Lagniappe Theatre Company. She signed me up and I went.”

 

From Cenla to the Great White WayMalik cites his 8th grade English teacher at Alexandria Middle Magnet School for facilitating an important moment. Malik went on, “We were watching the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ movie, and I realized that it was the pinnacle of what I wanted to do. I was crying at the end of the movie…it was just so powerful.” Then, in 2008, he saw a musical at his future alma mater, Pineville High School. Malik said, “I was at ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and I remember just sobbing at the end. Yes, it was a high school production, but in my mind, it was Shakespeare. That’s when I knew I wanted to make a life of this, to be a part of what I saw.” Little did Malik know, he would do more than just that.

 

Like many kids in the south, Malik grew up singing in church. However, he didn’t think of performance as a lifestyle he could have. “I think the first time I realized that singing was something that could take me somewhere wasn’t until high school.” Even as late as the end of his junior year of high school, Malik was still planning to attend college to study public relations or sociology. At the beginning of his senior year, Malik began auditioning for college musical theatre programs. His mother was by his side every step of the way. “It was such a bonding experience for her and me. She did really well being a calming hand from a distance. She didn’t crowd me or didn’t overwhelm me, but she was always there and that was exactly what I needed.” The audition process for college musical theatre programs is competitive. In most cases, over 1,000 high school seniors will audition for just ten to fifteen spots in a class. Malik recalled, “You’re eighteen auditioning for these schools, thinking ‘I have to get it or I won’t be successful.’ It feels like your life is on the line.”

 

Malik graduated from Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Cleveland, Ohio in 2016. This year, Baldwin Wallace was ranked as the #1 Bachelor of Music musical theatre college program by Onstage Magazine. Baldwin Wallace is a Bachelor of Music degree rather than a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, like many programs are. Because of the music component, the school significantly emphasizes musical instruction. Malik’s audition for the program was intense. Malik shared, “It’s a full day. You have theory tests in the morning, skills tests, and then they separate you from your parents in this room for Q&As with the students. Finally, then you do your vocal audition. But, you do the dance call at the end, so like I said, it’s a full day,” Malik stressed. At the conclusion of his auditioning experience, Malik knew Baldwin Wallace was the place for him, “You know when it just feels right? It just felt right. I felt like it was the thing I was supposed to do. And looking back on my four years, that’s absolutely true. That was where I was supposed to go.”

 

From Cenla to the Great White WayAt the very end of his senior year at Baldwin Wallace, Malik was invited to his first big audition for a musical that was slated for Broadway in the fall. The musical was “Holiday Inn”, based on the film of the same name with music by Irving Berlin. Malik was hesitant to jump into an audition so soon, but eventually decided to make the trek to New York City. He graduated on a Saturday, and on Wednesday morning, Malik was up and auditioning. He made it through to the vocal audition with five other actors. He left that day feeling good. The following Monday, just over a week after he’d graduated college, Malik got a fateful call: “My agent said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I was like, ‘Yes…’ and he said, ‘Well, you’ll be making your Broadway debut this fall.’ And then I just started screaming and crying. I called my mom, my friends…Since that day, I have never been on such a high.” Malik moved to New York City and began rehearsals. “I tell people all the time I feel so grateful and blessed to have had that experience right out of college; it was a beautiful way to get acclimated to the city. I had momentum to pay my bills and to survive,” Malik recalled.

 

The night of Malik’s Broadway debut was…eventful. He and his mother were on their way to the theatre when they got stuck in traffic. Thinking it would be faster to walk to the theatre, they got out of the cab. Malik laughs, “My mom was in this beautiful silver dress. So here she is with her slippers on and her shoes in hand, so it’s not like she could run. She just kept saying, ‘It’s ok, go ahead! Go ahead!’ So now I’m almost in tears because I have my mom running in the streets of New York City in her beautiful dress…I took a moment and just breathed.” Fortunately, Malik made it to the theatre on time for the show. It was a huge night for him. “It’s so much and so overwhelming. You know, my mom was watching me open my first Broadway show. All I could think about those times when I was in school, wondering if I would be able to pay for college, and all the sacrifices she made. Even going all the way back to auditioning for programs and how she made sure I could perform in high school. While I was performing, that’s all I could think about. I was like ‘This moment is quite literally for you.’”

 

Broadway performers do eight shows a week: six days of evening performances and two days a week with both a matinee and an evening show in the same day. While Malik had done this amount of performances before, he reveals it’s not the same once you’re on Broadway, “You have to readjust and reassess your lifestyle. That was something I had to learn, how to sustain yourself through a full week. Your body is your instrument and you’re using it and your voice in this concentrated way for two and a half hours every day.”

 

After “Holiday Inn” ended its limited run, Malik did a variety of gigs: from a starring role at an established theatre in Philadelphia to workshops for new musicals in Toronto. This string of successes eventually led to a few valleys in his journey. Malik divulged, “I went through a reality check of this business. I knew I needed to get a survival job to pay my bills.” Malik got two jobs, one at a fitness studio and one bartending at a restaurant. This was a rough time for him. Malik would get up and work the front desk at the fitness studio, take a nap, and then go straight to bartend until closing at the restaurant. He confided, “That was when I realized nothing is guaranteed in this business. No matter what’s on your resume or how great you are, at the end of the day, that’s the risk we take in this business. Sometimes you have to humble yourself and wipe some tables, spray some shoes.” Cast members from “Holiday Inn” came in a few times to his restaurant. Malik mused, “You know, six months ago, we were in a Broadway show together, and now I’m asking your kids if they need crayons, or wiping the crumbs off your table so you can sit.” He continued, “There were some hard weeks where I really struggled, wondering if I was going to be able to pay rent or how I was going to eat. I was so grateful to my support system then, though. My mom, my dad, and especially my friends here. My friends who have really kept me, who have fed me when I needed to be fed, who have really come through for me.”

 

Malik was opening the fitness studio and then working till closing. Sometimes he would start to fall asleep at his front desk job. Malik reached a turning point when a coworker at his fitness studio came up to him and said, “You know, when I moved here and was working more than I was auditioning, I decided to change some things as well.” Then she walked away. Malik was affected. “The next week, I quit my restaurant job. At the time, I didn’t exactly know where the money was going to come from, but I knew I had to do something else. It was actually draining my soul.”

 

Soon after, Malik booked “Gypsy” in North Carolina and then later “The Scottsboro Boys” in Washington, D.C. For a few years Malik had been auditioning for various productions of the Disney stage show of “Aladdin”, but the timing or the role was never right. Coincidentally, “Gypsy” was directed by one of the main casting directors for “Aladdin” and the choreography was done by the choreography supervisor for “Aladdin”. While in “The Scottsboro Boys” in D.C., Malik heard from his agents saying there might be a spot opening up for him in the Broadway production of the show. He trusted that if it was the time for him to join the show, it would be the time. And it was. Malik put in his two-week notice at “The Scottsboro Boys” and returned to New York to join the cast of “Aladdin”.

 

Malik was hired as a vacation swing at the show. A swing’s job in the theatre is to play one or more roles in the acting ensemble of a musical when another actor is out. These actors learn multiple different tracks, or series of minor characters played by a single ensemble actor in separate scenes. Malik began covering the twelve separate tracks of each male in the production. Originally hired to cover for a month and a half, shifting roles kept contract extensions coming. While many actors in the ensemble are the understudies for lead roles, Malik was only originally understudying ensemble roles. When the company found itself down a cover for Iago, the royal vizier Jaffar’s evil henchman, Malik was a natural choice, having auditioned previously for the same role on the national tour. Currently, Malik covers thirteen tracks in the show. He performs nightly, either covering an ensemble role or on as Iago.

 

From Cenla to the Great White Way“Isn’t it exhausting?” I asked. “Absolutely,” replied Malik quickly, “It’s a difficult show, especially for the men. It’s very dance-heavy.” Even so, he is grateful for the opportunities he has been granted, especially being plugged into a show that has been up and running for five years. Malik contemplated, “This experience has taught me a lot about myself. It’s taught me a lot about how I work. And it’s nice to be in the Disney family. I know the tracks, so now I can come in and out. And if there’s a position open, I can hope I would be considered to stay permanently. If I were to come in permanently, I would for sure stay for two years, pay off my student loans, save some money, and just settle into a lifestyle. But for now, it works.” This was supposed to be a short stint for Malik. “I never thought I would still be here after this long. People around the building keep saying, ‘Oh yeah, you’re not going anywhere, you know that? You’re not leaving any time soon.’”

 

If his past is any indicator for his future, Malik Akil is undeniably here to stay.