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Onika Day left the Bay Area to pursue her New York dreams. She landed in Hell’s Kitchen and has found work in the theater and now in television series like The Undoing, Billions, and The Affair.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I always glamorized New York City. I grew up in the Bay Area during the early days of Hip Hop. I was always in awe of the stories of breakdance, the fashion and rap battles that my friends shared with me after returning from a summer trip to the city. We didn’t have internet, so the only access we had to the world outside our own was shared stories or films. I just wanted to see West Side Story on Broadway.
After a few “life lessons”, career changes, and a serious car accident (I couldn’t walk for a month), I was challenged to stop bullshitting and get back into acting. The only way that I would be able to “Pay my dues” would be to move to New York. Over the last ten years, New York has become so enveloped into my soul that I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else. As soon as I moved to NY, I immediately started getting cast in Television and Films (I had worked mostly in the theater). I have developed such an amazing circle of support and friendships of such a diverse group of people that have set my growth as a respectable artist and human being.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I had a friend that won the lottery for affordable housing on an apartment on 42nd street not far from Manhattan Plaza. It was the perfect midpoint meeting place for wherever we were headed for the night or to crash after too many drinks. I decided to apply for an apartment there, and when one became available, I won! I lived there for six years, and although I’ve moved on, I feel that winning that apartment was such a blessing. It saved my life and made me settle into living in NY and focus on my goals.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
Whenever I think of moving to another neighborhood or borough, I think about how much I would lose. We are literally in the center of the world! We’re near some of the best work on stage On and Off-Broadway that can EVER be seen. We have the best restaurants! Whatever you’d like to eat — you name it, you got it (even better, most of them are still family run). I love the bars that turn into speakeasies after closing because you are friends with the employees (shhh) and building real relationships with neighbors who care about you. Hell’s Kitchen will always have pockets of the neighborhood will always stay authentic despite the growing gentrification. There is a history here, that if you are open to it, is still willing to tell you its story.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
Walking past buildings that haven’t cleaned the streams of Dog Pee on the sidewalk. We have our share of mentally ill folks and homeless and addicts and shady dealings and sometimes garbage that may pile up, which may have gotten a bit worse during the pandemic.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit, or did you find an escape for some of the time?
In January, I left with only a carry-on to take care of my Mother, who had experienced some really tough health challenges. As I was trying to figure out how to navigate my world being turned upside down, the whole world shut down in March. After gaining a bit of control of my mother’s situation, I returned to New York in May against my family’s wishes. Despite all of the surrounding chaos and fear, Hell’s Kitchen was an escape for me after just going through that personal hell alongside my mother.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
The year leading up to 2020 was great. I had just started to book more recurring roles on several top shows shooting in NY. I was writing and searching for financing for a feature film that I want to direct; I had side bartending gigs at Villain and The Zodiac Room. For the first time in 20 years, I am not participating in the service industry hustle. I still am the primary caregiver for my mother, and I am focusing on auditions (self-tape is another whole new medium), zoom table reads, interviews, and seminars. I have a group of neighbors that I stick close with to get my outdoor dining and bar-hopping fix.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
I’ve learned how important human interaction is — it helps me maintain serenity. My Hell’s Kitchen tribe developed out of the need to connect. I have also found that no matter how far away you stray from your family, they will always be your ground zero, and no matter what unresolved issues you have with them, dealing with them head-on will help you evolve to another level of being. I’ve learned about the strength of “essential workers” who brave the risk of illness to feed their families.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
The 7pm neighborhood cheers for the healthcare workers.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I was friends with and in Tupac Shakur’s last music video. Also, there was a huge photo of me published in the New York Times Food Section — I was bartending at the opening of Red Rooster.
What’s your superpower?
I am Wonderwoman (please don’t tell anyone).
Which people inspire you the most?
My father, my mother fighting for her life, and my peers and neighbors (like Markuann Smith, Creator of Godfather of Harlem, and my brother Sway Calloway) who are creating some of the most inspiring groundbreaking work I can think of. Also, the people making bacon, egg, and cheese, packing my groceries, serving, and bartending.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“It Ain’t Easy” – David Bowie.
Do you love Times Square?
When I first moved here, I requested a view of Times Square’s over a Hudson view — the lights and energy are magnetic. But once you live in NY for a while, you turn into one of those people trying to navigate all of the tourists looking up amazed by the lights and trying to take pics, or selling bus tours while you are rushing to your next audition.
Do you love Hudson Yards?
I was one of the opening team members of Hudson Yards, so I was excited and impressed with what was being built. I also feared the income divide as they began to call it “Billionaire Row.” I am in Love with The Shed and all it has to offer, and I think that Hudson Yards will develop into a great tourist spot for the West Side.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
I’m on IMDB.
HELL’S KITCHEN HAPPY PLACES
Gotham Market Market. This has been my neighborhood Quarantine spot — they have been taking care of us!
Reunion. The Mai Tais and it’s black-owned. Hoping it comes back.
Aqua Boil. I love me some good crab legs.
Pier 84 at Hudson River Park. It has been our neighborhood remote island, tanning station, and all-around summer hang out spot.
Down The Road Sports Bar. Incredible owner, amazing staff, good drinks.
Tell us your West Side Story. Click here to find out how you can feature.