// Suburban Identity
This is the story of the little black boy from the suburbs who had his innocence stripped away and replaced with a tainted perspective of his identity.
Volume 01 Issue 04
February 18th, 2019

ACT I: Searching [sur-ching]
Adjective: Examining carefully or thoroughly/Occasionally
he glanced behind him, as if searching for someone, or something, that might be watching/

Let me tell you a story about a little boy from the suburbs. This boy was compassionate, this boy was smart, and this boy was gentle. He cared about the well-being of others, and the scope of his empathy knew no bounds. When he looked in the mirror, he saw the future. It was a future that held limitless possibilities. One day, the little boy was insulted because of his physical characteristics. The other children made fun of his big lips, they made fun of his nappy hair, and they even made fun of him because of the natural complexion of his skin. The little boy began to realize that these were all characteristics that directly applied to physical appearance of his people. Eventually, he no longer saw these features as natural, he saw them as deficiencies.  He was too passive to confront the problems, so he kept quiet about his feelings. Instead, he laughed along with his peers to hide his shame. In reality, he was ashamed of his identity. He was ashamed about an existence that he would never be able to escape. Now, when he looked in the mirror, all he saw was his race and the “flaws” that came with it. This wasn’t just a little boy anymore, he was now a young man who had his blinders to race removed from his life. He had that innocence forever taken away from him. He began to watch the news and see how people like him were represented in the media. He began to see what the world truly thought of him. He questioned his worth. He felt second rate. Would he ever be able to gain meaningful recognition for his existence? Or would his value forever be defined by the color of his skin? He felt scared, trapped, and helpless.

As he continued to grow into adolescence this young man’s mentality remained the same. He viewed himself as lesser than others. And although he would never admit it to his peers, he constantly showed it through his interactions. He had a hard time connecting with people because he did not feel he was worth their time. He felt that he would never be deserving of those relationships that he so desperately wanted to cultivate. As high school progressed, he thought things were getting better. He finally had a girlfriend. Someone he could call his own. Someone he could call his home. That was until his sweetheart told him they could never last because his blackness would never be accepted by her parents. This destroyed him. He could not come to comprehend the rationale. This young man had a 4.2 GPA, he had multiple college acceptances, and was highly involved in extracurricular activities. But to her parents, none of that mattered. His race was the only factor that needed to be considered before they dismissed the idea of him entirely. He came to understand his existence as one that would always be defined by his ethnicity. He no longer felt comfortable in his own skin. He began to hate himself. He began to hate the idea of existing in a world where his accomplishments would always be overshadowed by a part of himself that he could never change.

This young man eventually transitioned into a young adult. This young adult was now in college. This young man was a part of the Loyola University Maryland Class of 2019. This young adult was me.

Throughout my time in college, I have continued to carry the baggage that manifested itself during my childhood. I have done my best to progress from the negative mindsets but it can be hard to bypass mental damages that shape such a core part of your development. In truth, the only thing that has ever made me feel like I mattered was acting. It’s the only thing that I feel has given my life value. Sometimes I feel like the real reason why I want to pursue acting is because I want to prove my worth. Not only to the world, but to myself as well. In those moments on stage, I can become something greater than myself. I don’t have to be Zalen King. I don’t have to be defined by his limitations. I don’t have to be held back by his imperfections. There is something in that I find both comforting and liberating. I suppose it’s because I still haven’t truly found comfort in my own skin.  However, I also believe that acting has allowed me to better understand myself. With each new character I experience a different side of my being that I sometimes didn’t even know existed.

All I want to be able to do is use my craft to tell a story to the world: my story. I feel that traditional films portray black coming of age stories with their origins rooted in the “hood.” And although this may be the case for some people, it is not a universal commonality. I feel that the upbringing I experienced was unique when compared to those traditional stories. I want people to know that we have more stories to tell. We as a people are more than what the stereotypes persist. We are more than what is portrayed about us in the media. I think the experiences I had during my childhood were necessary because they have instilled me with the drive to pursue this passion and make my voice heard. I want to help others who may have had similar experiences to mine. I want to show them that they aren’t alone in their journey. I want to show them that even though sometimes it may feel like the world is against them, there is still a place for them in it. I want them to know they are valued and have the potential to contribute to the world that we inhabit.

This is my story. The story of the little black boy from the suburbs who had his innocence stripped away and replaced with a tainted perspective of his identity. It’s far from ideal, but it’s also far from being over. I’ll continue to use acting as an outlet that will allow me to define new components of identity. Components that will help me to reestablish a sense of self-love within my life. I can only hope that I will be able to use my craft to share stories that can help others have the same emotional and spiritual self-development.

Ikechukwu: I also grew up in the suburban world - while it was very diverse, there were a lot of instances in which my name/the color of skin was crudely made fun of. I used to hate getting straight As in middle school because they would butcher my name through the school speakers. Looking back, it was those moments that made me ashamed of my identity and keep to myself. It wasn’t until Loyola where I found myself again. When did you first discover the healing tool/escape of acting? How did it feel?

Zalen: I found it in high school. I stopped playing soccer and joined the step team. I could tell that performing was something I had an affinity for. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I discovered acting to be the best outlet. It felt liberating honestly. I found something that I not only felt I was good at, but also something I wanted to pursue for my professional career. Not many people at that age can say they know what they want out of life but I did and it hasn’t changed since then.

Your statement on why you act - to help others who have similar experiences is the exact reason I’m doing this. I want to show people they are not alone through stories such as yours. If you had the chance to talk to you when you were a little boy, what would you tell him?

Great question. Part of me would want to tell him to take acting, vocal, and piano classes so that I could have all those skills at my disposal now as an adult. But since I still plan to cultivate these skills  and I think the life I originally lived led me to where I am now, I do not know if I should tell him anything. The one thing I would tell him is that he is shouldn’t value himself any less or any more than anyone else. I would tell him that his skin doesn’t dictate his value and that he should not live life trying to prove this “value” to those around him.

Do you think your value is defined by the color of your skin?

Societally yes: I think that a lot of value is determined by the color of one’s skin. As black people we constantly see ourselves being taken advantage of by law enforcement on the news and on social media. The image of our black bodies have been intertwined with the concept of criminalization. This has a negative effect not only on society values our lives, but also the way we as black people value ourselves. However, the way we value ourselves should not be based on outside perceptions. It should be based on the moral standards we hold ourselves to and the

You are in your last lap of undergrad at Loyola - looking back, how would you describe your evolving journey of finding yourself?

I don’t think I have yet. There is still a lot I need to learn. I feel like there are so many situations where I am uncertain about which path to choose. And then once I’ve chosen it, I am not even sure if I have made the right decision. One thing is certain, the journey for finding myself is long from over, but what I will say is that Loyola has made me define more rigid values for myself. 

What has been your favorite character to play?

I actually have two favorite roles. The first is Macbeth. For obvious reasons such as being able to play my first lead role, but also because of the opportunity to work more heavily with Shakespeare’s language. I feel that the experience of playing that role truly elevated my acting ability. The character of Macbeth is also one that I feel many can relate to. This is a man with an impossible decision to make and he ultimately decides to kill his king. Murder is not usually the cause of our uncertainty (at least I hope not lol) but I think that most people struggle everyday to make choices where both sides have equal gravity pulling you towards them. An impossible decision in which whatever you decide you will probably always regret not choosing the other. This is a struggle that manifests itself in everyone’s life and it was fun to bring it to life on stage with this show. 

The second character I enjoyed playing Henry from “The Real Thing” by Tom Stoppard. This role was fun simply because I got to play a highly intelligent playwright. The dialogue that was written for him made every word I said seem like I had a PHD. I usually don’t ever feel that smart so that was cool lol. The commentary on love and its intricacies was also another fun element that I gained experience playing the role of Henry.

Representation in media is very important. There are people in this world who have never come across Black people, and base us on the portrayal we see in media: guns, violence, drugs, etc. There are not many stories outside of that being highlighted. What are some stories you would want to tell outside your own story?

I’d tell stories from my childhood. Stories about the intermingling of different cultures, White, hispanic, asian, indian, middle eastern etc. I went to a very diverse high school (whites being very prevalent but still in the minority). I want to tell stories that chronicle the lives of black teenagers growing up in that environment to show the differences (and parallels) compared the common perception most people have.

What sides of yourself do you discover through acting?

I have learned how to be vulnerable from my acting experiences. This is important on stage because if you can’t be vulnerable you can never truly develop characters to their true potential. The performances will never feel authentic. This same sentiment holds true for life. One cannot be their authentic selves if they do not allow themselves to be vulnerable. Through acting I have been shown that there is power in vulnerability and that in those moments you learn about yourself in ways you can never imagine.

You talk about your escape in acting, in which you can be someone “better than him.” However, take away acting - who are you? Who do you consider yourself to be? What is your identity? What is the identity you want to create for yourself?

If you take away acting, Zalen is a person who endeavors to improve the lives of those around him. Through my role as an RA, a mentor, and a friend, I’ve found that working to that end has been the most fulfilling. I want to use acting to continue this effort by delivering content that can both educate and entertain (either one but hopefully both) different audiences. Acting would also someday give me the platform to inspire others. But if you take acting away the identity I would want to create is an individuals who others can always look to for guidance or help.

You expressed to me that it is hard to get past some of your mental damages, so how have you worked on your mental damage?

I’ve wanted to go to therapy for a long-time. Life just gets in the way. I still do not love myself in the way that I want to. There is a lot of negativity in terms of the way that I look at myself. Most of my life I’ve looked at myself as lesser than others because of the color of my skin. Not proud of that fact, but it’s real. Its reality for a lot of black people. In order to overcome those kinds of mental damages I think I just gotta keep reminding myself that I’m not defined by the perceptions certain people may have about me. I have to remember what we as black people are capable of and how much greatness we have already achieved. I feel like I could talk about this for hours but I think you get it lol. It’s just gonna come down to me convincing myself of these truths that I already know to be. 

// Thanks for taking this time and opening up for me my man. Always remember that we as black men and women are naturally talented, gifted, and beautiful. I mean, looking at our history and how far we’ve come already, it’s a testament to our will and force. Keep crushing senior year, and see you in LA very very soon. We gonna shake the world, no doubt.

See you in LA very soon bro. Tryna make it there everyday lol. I will though.

Update #1
March 4th, 2020


I appreciate y’all giving me the chance to add more to this incredible piece y’all created.

Last May, I graduated from Loyola University Maryland and received my Bachelors in Finance. After graduation I unfortunately did not have a full time job lined up. Not gonna lie, after having performed so well in undergrad, my expectations for my job prospects were high. To finish and have nothing to show for it was...disappointing to say the least lol. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had been lied to about the true value of a college degree. But, as it turned out, not having a job turned out to be the best thing for me. It allowed me to put more focus into my passion and into further developing my craft.

Fast forward to today - I am now half way through my 1 Year Acting program with an Off-Broadway theater company in NYC. I also work full time in the city at a company that not only pays me well but has also given me an environment where my peers and my boss are all supportive of both my professional career and my acting career. Cultivating my acting ability and becoming a versatile performer has always been important for me. This program has helped to elevate my capabilities to an entirely different level. It has taught me more about the art form and what it takes to create a believable performance. This has been the most fulfilling education I have ever received and I’m thankful that my experience led me here.

Looking towards the future -  I am looking to find an agent and move to either New York or Los Angeles. I’m not entirely sure yet. So far, a majority of my post grad life has consisted of this uncertainty. Constantly questioning every decision in order to identify the best course of action. But I’m slowly starting to realize that I need to embrace the ambiguity of my future. No matter what decision I choose, there will always be a lesson that can make me more prepared for what’s to come next.

I’m nowhere close to where I want to be but I’m on my way. As long as I stay consistent, I know I’ll get there.

-  Zalen King