In the summer of 2008, Kara Young spent a month studying Thai classical theater in Thailand. “Little did I know what the [expletive] I was getting myself into,” the actress said in a recent Zoom conversation. “It was like a freaking boot camp! A week into it, they go ‘We’re going to stretch you proper.’ I was the first person: ‘I volunteer! Stretch me!’ ”
Up and moving, she started to vividly re-enact the experience. The Zoom window was too small, too square to contain her.
“A guy put his feet into my thighs,” she continued, “he takes my fingers and puts them all the way back and then I do a split and my legs are against the wall. I was like, ‘Mom and Dad, come and get me!’ ”
Such vitality will be familiar to those who have seen Young Off Broadway, whether as an aspiring poet in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” a white gay couple’s troubled daughter in Jeff Augustin’s “The New Englanders” or a lesbian teen crushing on a certain screen star in C.A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans.”
Describing that last performance in The New York Times, Alexis Soloski wondered how Young could “fit what feels like a mountain of blood, heart, sinew and febrile emotional response into a frame that can’t stretch past five feet.”
That her charisma translates online is fortuitous since the actress’ next project is the title role in a reading of Eisa Davis’s “Bulrusher” on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. The lyrical coming-of-age tale, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007, also stars André Holland and Corey Stoll; it is part of the playwright Paula Vogel’s Bard at the Gate project, which aims to bring attention to undersung scripts.
Over the phone, Davis recalled seeing Young in “Halfway Bitches.” “I was just like, ‘What?’” she said, laughing. “She’s just such a live wire in that.”
Young plays the title character in “Bulrusher,” an 18-year-old foundling with clairvoyant powers in 1955 rural California.
“I was surprised to see her take this new tack on it,” said Davis, who also directed the reading. “She played her as this very bizarre, very feral — ” She interrupted herself. “Of course, whenever you’re talking about Black people, and you start talking about animals, there’s this racist shadow that looms. But what I see when I talk about feral is something quite related to where Bulrusher comes from as a person: She’s really been raised by this land.”
Young, on the other hand, has been raised by New York City.
The first-generation daughter of Belizean immigrants — her father a captain at the Rainbow Room, her mother a hospital administrator — she was speaking from her apartment in Harlem, three blocks from where she was born. After a semester-long stint at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, she high-tailed it home and spent a year at the City College of New York before moving on to the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.
Just as important was pounding the pavement. At one of her many subsistence jobs, she worked the wedding of Kara Young, a model who dated Donald J. Trump in the 1990s.
“I went up to her mother, and I was like, ‘Yo, we’ve got the same name!’ ” Young said. “She introduced me — this tiny cater-waiter of a person, hair slicked back in a ponytail, with the little bow tie — to the whole family. What a world.”
Perhaps due to her petite frame and the wide-set eyes that open up her face, Young has played many characters younger — sometimes much younger — than she is. (She declined to give her age. “I call myself the Harlem fairy,” she said. “I’m like the Black Tinker Bell.”)
“I’m small-statured, I’ve always been told I’m a physical actor, and young people have a different connection to the world,” Young said when asked about playing teenagers. “When you’re coming into yourself, so many things are changing. Your body is changing, your voice is changing, people are looking at you differently, they’re responding to you differently. On top of that, being a Black woman, a Black person, a Black human — there’s so many other layers.”
A key encounter was with Patricia Ione Lloyd (“Eve’s Song”), who cast her in her short piece “The Reoccurring Resurrection of Sweet Latisha Jesus Brown” in 2012. Young played a tween. That same year, she began her association with the Labyrinth Theater Company by participating in one of its workshops. She joined the ensemble in 2017, and two years later appeared in “Halfway Bitches” (a coproduction between Labyrinth and the Atlantic Theater Company. )
Even in a powerhouse cast, Young made an indelible, heart-wrenching impression as Little Melba Diaz, a young girl trying to use her art to survive on the streets of New York.
“Kara really took what was on the page, plus our conversations about her character that didn’t get on the page, and she just flew with it,” Guirgis wrote in an email. “She is a mighty force.”
Young made hay of Guirgis’s arias of dialogue, while adding to her growing gallery of women blanked out by a society that refuses to see them.
“Every character has opened my world because it’s like my body is being acknowledged,” Young said. “Little Melba is being acknowledged. Black girls go missing every day …” She teared up, shaking. “So we’re paying attention to somebody nobody cares about. I also just understood, if I had grown up in a different — ” She paused again. “My story could be so different.”
This empathic connection can be painful, but it can also have a liberating side. During our conversation, Young often returned to how much she loves getting to know the people she portrays.
“I love rehearsal — it’s my favorite thing in the world,” she said. “It’s an actual playground for me: I’m available to play with people. You don’t call it that, but it’s magic.”