A person wearing a long black coat standing with their left arm extended and their right arm holding the coat open. They are standing in front of a window with the words \"COALITION THEATER\" painted in white letters.
During his first year at VCU, Makai Walker auditioned and got on to an improv team at Coalition Theater, a comedy venue located not far from campus in downtown Richmond. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

RVA My Way: Makai Walker

Richmond’s ‘undercurrent of youth and collaboration’ have proven to be the perfect launch pad for theatre major Makai Walker’s comedic aspirations.

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About RVA My Way: This story is part of a series where VCU students share how they’ve made Richmond their own and how it’s helped shape them in return.

With any luck, Makai Walker will be able to look back one day and say that Richmond is the place where it all started. The senior Virginia Commonwealth University theatre major, who is originally from Middletown, New York, got their feet wet on stages in Richmond their freshman year, and it didn’t take long to fully immerse themself in the city’s theater and comedy scenes.

At the urging of their first-year improv professor, Walker auditioned for a house team at Coalition Theater, one of the main venues for live comedy in the city. “That was such a big moment for me because it proved for me that, ‘Yeah I’m here. I’m here to do this and I’m good enough to do this,’” Walker said.

Since then, Walker has been on improv teams at VCU and performed many a pandemic Zoom show as well as live shows at various spots around Richmond, all while staying involved with Coalition. The city’s theater scene has become integrated into Walker’s college experience, with local performance venues becoming an extension of the traditional classroom.

“I knew in my heart of hearts, in my guts, that … I couldn’t just be a student. I couldn’t just sit and learn.... I had to try it out and test it,” Walker said. “And proving myself in the city helped me in a way prove myself in classes. I was using the information that we would learn, the techniques in classes … and I would take that and I’d use that in the city. And I would find that the things my classes were missing or the things that my classes were unable to provide … I was able to find for real in the real world in the city very easily.”

Two people standing next to each other talking. The person on the right has their left arm extended and their right arm on their hit.
Walker performs in a sketch comedy show called "Outburst" at Richmond's Coalition Theater in winter 2022. (Lauren Serpa; Instagram: @laurenserpaphotographs)

Beyond the theater scene, being in the heart of Richmond has given Walker the chance to meet new people and do new things. “I am always down to go out and have an adventure because they tell you this in classes: The thing about being an artist, about being an actor, is you have to have experiences to feed on,” they said. “The more that you’re mingling with people, the more that you’re going to a festival, a school event, a party, you color yourself as person with more variety.”

From a career point of view, Walker wants to gather those personal experiences and use them to start pushing the boundaries of mainstream Black comedy.

“I think in Richmond … there is a shift to be a little more inclusive and a little more diverse in what we’re producing as an artist community and I’m really leaning into that. I like that a lot. I hope it continues. I want to see more risk in terms of what stories are being told. And I think that’s my job as Makai. My job is to bring forth a new perspective on queer Black entertainment. That’s what I want to do.”

VCU News sat down with Walker to talk about their favorite things to do in the city, what makes Richmond a great place for young performers, and what motivates them as an artist. You can follow their adventures on Instagram at @Makai.Walk.

To be a comedian, you need experiences to feed on. Virginia Commonwealth University theatre performance major Makai Walker has had an easy time finding them in Richmond – whether performing on stage at a local venue, out with friends exploring the city or making people laugh as part of an improv group on campus.

What makes Richmond unique:

It’s that like metropolitan artsy feel that [it has]. A lot of the concert venues and bars and theaters and clubs, they all have this undercurrent of youth and collaboration. Everyone’s an artist here, but it’s so very low-key that it doesn’t feel like an art city like New York or Chicago. … There’s just something about the heart of the city that makes it very accessible. … It’s a city that’s not a lot to handle. It’s very wide and diverse in its population and it’s very connected to its roots.

VCU has become so integrated into Richmond that you can’t really have one without the other. And in a weird way, the Richmond population knows that as well so they’re constantly relying on and providing opportunities for up-and-comers, new artists, new collaborations because they know VCU is such a good school that they can feed on that.

What inspires them:

Black comedy legacy really inspires me. Seeing shows like “Abbott Elementary,” “Insecure,” Issa Rae’s work, Donald Glover’s work especially on “Community” and particularly “Atlanta.” Even Raven-Symoné on “That’s So Raven.” These big Black comedy icons who have been doing this for years have become staples of Black comedy. I look up to them so much.

A person wearing a long black coat walking down a street with their hands in their pockets
For fun, Walker and their friends like to go out. "I'm always going up and down Broad Street," Walker said. "Especially toward downtown and Shockoe Bottom." (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

How improv, particularly with Coalition and VCU’s Black Brown ’n Honey troupe, has helped them grow:

Especially in comedy, and in acting, period, you find that your voice isn’t the typical voice that you’re hearing from, but also it’s not that it’s not wanted or that it’s not appreciated or seen but it’s that because there’s no model that has come before, it’s hard to place your own voice. … So having Black Brown ’n Honey, having a space for BIPOC individuals where you’re able to come at comedy from your own roots, come at comedy from the Black perspective, the queer perspective, and really joke or make light of the issues you know to be very true, makes it more impactful.

Favorite spots to see comedy in Richmond:

ComedySportz and Sandman Comedy Club are more “legitimate/upscale” venues, but even a venue like Ipanema Cafe, right on campus, does weekly open mics. That’s what makes going out so fun, is that each new venue offers a unique performing environment because the clients are so different.

Favorite performance they’ve seen:

I went to a show at Brambly Park. [It was] one of my favorite bands who I’d been following since freshman year when I saw them at a house party. Los Malcriados. It’s a salsa meets jazz meets I don’t even know, like soul, band that just kills it every time. They’re just so good.

Their “un” word:

Unapologetic. I come as myself every time and I’m unapologetic about it. … VCU provides the safe space for me to feel unapologetic and then the city allows you to explore more avenues of your expression.