“Legally Black” urges Augie community to speak out


Zina Ellis from Moline performs her solo cabaret piece “Legally Black” about her experience as a black woman in musical theatre.

As enjoyable as it is to be a part of the theatrical process, not many realize how little power the individual can actually have during the production, and the impact that race can have on one’s career in the performing arts.

An actor may have choice over how they say a line, the subtle quirks of their characters personality, and the drive they assign to that character, but they are still subject to the will of the director, the stage manager, the sound crew, the stage crew, the choreographer, the casting directors, and others.

When she arrived at The University of Yale, Zina Ellis decided to take that power into her own ability, and alongside her accompanist Ian Miller, wrote “Legally Black” to demonstrate that the individual can be as powerful as they wish themselves to be.

Growing up in our very own Moline, Illinois, Ellis traveled out to Connecticut to pursue her ambitions of the musical arts, but she began to notice that not all roles are casted on merit.

“It was a dawning realization,” Ellis said. “It didn’t occur to me in high school, but eventually I began to notice the pattern.”

“Legally Black” started as a senior inquiry project, but it quickly began to take up all of their time, writing, rehearsing, and revising became their lives while creating the performance. For the production, Ellis and Miller chose to bring across the racial bias that exists in theater by performing renditions of songs assigned to black actors while Ellis explained her reasoning for choosing the song, as well as providing examples of this bias in modern theater.

“We got to choose all the songs we wanted, but we did have a lot to choose from,” Ellis and Miller explained. “There is still a long way to go, but it’s getting better.”

Ellis was able to come back to Illinois and perform all thanks to her mother, who gave the recording of her first performance to her old teacher John Pfautz. Pfautz works as a voice coach and musical teacher here at Augie, and he was elated to have Ellis come back and perform on Symposium Day.”

The event was so successful that they hosted another performance the next day, to an at capacity black box theater. It was not only nice for John to see Ellis on the stage, but it meant something to him personally as well: “To see her up there speaking her mind, and to have known her for so long, is a really great feeling to have,” Pfautz stated.

To everyone who believes that they don’t have the voice to change something, Ellis urged every individual to “speak out”.

“Point out an issue if you see it,” Ellis began. “And don’t be afraid to chase it down if it seems like it is going to get difficult.”