The Light

Zhalarina Sanders tells an autobiographical story of forbidden love woven through three lyrical music videos fusing hip-hop and the theater arts.

The Light

The Light tells the forbidden love story of a girl exploring queer identity at the onset of the 21st century’s evolving negotiation of gender and sexuality. Told through a series of three sequential music videos, written and performed by Zhalarina Sanders playing both herself and her mother Diji, The Light is at once personal and universal — attending to the complexities of identity, coming-of-age, faith, self-actualization, and the bonds and tensions between parent and child.

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The Light

Act I: Found

Zhalarina, the protagonist of this autobiographical story, grows stronger and more confident as a writer and performer when a girl at school changes everything. The girl becomes her clandestine muse until Zhalarina’s mother Diji — coping with the pressures of parenthood and determined to do right by her daughter — imposes drastic measures to forbid the relationship.

The Light : Act I: Found

Act I: Found

Zhalarina finds clandestine love at school to the dismay and alarm of her mother Diji.

The Light : Act II: Soot Swallowed

Act II: Soot Swallowed

Suffocated at school and home, Zhalarina struggles to write and gets a heartbreaking hit.

The Light : Act III: Will Dawn

Act III: Will Dawn

Zhalarina confronts wrenching alienation but faith and a return to writing help her heal.

The Light : Behind “The Light”: Zhalarina

Behind “The Light”: Zhalarina

Meet Zhalarina Sanders, The Light's writer, creator and central performer.

The Light : Behind “The Light”: Kabuki Drops

Behind “The Light”: Kabuki Drops

Go behind the scenes of The Light to watch the theatrical effect called the ``Kabuki Drop.``

The Light : Behind “The Light”: Quick Change

Behind “The Light”: Quick Change

The Light's producers and performer execute a costume change for a swift-paced film shot.

Was that really your first kiss?


Zhalarina H. Sanders is a rapper, actress, playwright and producer originally from Tampa, Florida. She serves as co-founder of The JVN Project, a hip-hop centered non-profit that seeks to uplift underprivileged communities through the arts, youth mentorship and social justice initiatives. She received her master’s in counseling psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was featured in the PBS Wisconsin 2018 documentary Hip-Hop U.

Zhalarina has performed her award-winning work in the United States and abroad, appearing on stages such as the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in London. She currently lives in Atlanta where she is working on the completion of her album Again! — for which nine of fourteen songs have already been released. She’s also working on her second one-person show following Rose Gold, entitled All for One.

Zhalarina Sanders sits at her classroom desk.
Zhalarina Sanders. Photo/Jim Gill.
Zhalarina Sanders on the set of The Light
Photo/Trevor Keller


Q&A: Designing the Set for “The Light”

Cailin Short, set designer and project manager at PBS Wisconsin, played a lead role constructing the real and surreal spaces of Zhalarina’s world in The Light. Here Cailin answers questions about design challenges specific to the production.

The Light: A split screen of two sets in The Light - a kitchen and a bedroom


Artist Zhalarina Sanders Explores Love, Identity With “The Light”

Zhalarina Sanders is an artist who does it all. Her craft is steeped in theater and music — so lyricist, music composer, instrumentalist, playwright, actor and graphic and visual artist.

I’ll be the light before it gets dark/
cause I’m the one who memorized the beat of your heart/
and you won’t have to go far/
to find a thorough reminder of who you are

Hip-Hop U: The First Wave Scholars

A film exploring the innovative work of students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison First Wave - Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives program.

First Wave students performing

Hip-Hop Culture, Spoken Word and More Comes with This College Education Experience

First Wave graduates Zhalarina Sanders and Tiffany Ike join PBS Wisconsin producer Trevor Keller to discuss their experiences as First Wavers.


First Wave student Zhalarina Sanders performs “Tampa,” constructing an intense, vibrant and evocative portrait of Black community and her hometown’s rich urban and cultural landscape.

Rose Gold

First Wave student Zhalarina Sanders performs an excerpt from her one-person show, “Rose Gold,” in which she plays five distinct Black women to tell a masterfully textured and affecting story of Black motherhood.


The Light production crew on set.
From left, Trevor Keller, Will Salzmann (seated on floor), Rodney Lambright II, Zhalarina Sanders, Nia Scott, Cailin Short (seated on floor), Ryan Ward, Jake Penner, and Beauxregard Neylon. Photo/Jim Gill.

Creator / Writer / Producer

Zhalarina Sanders

Performance Director

Jake Penner

Art Director

Rodney Lambright II

Set Designer & Props

Cailin Short

Lighting Director

Will Salzmann

Sound Design

Beauxregard Neylon


Ryan Ward


James Donovan


Rina – Zhalarina Sanders

Diji – Zhalarina Sanders

Bae – Nia Scott

Dad/Teacher – Jake Penner


Nia Scott

Sam Wirth

Production Assistants

Philip Ashby

Tommy Bruno

Mike Foley

Angie Hause

Marian Herzog

Will Kenneally

Veronica Plum

Brandon Ribordy

Amanda Richardson

Emily Rubasch

Sam Wirth


Erika Kachama-Nkoy

Chester Lee

Sigrid Peterson

Digital Voltage Advisor

Tim Schneider

Managing Producer

Trevor Keller

Executive Producer

Laurie Gorman

Funding for The Light is provided in part by Steven Vedro and Beverly Gordon, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.