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Alum spotlight: Dr. Rex Ellis (BFA ’74)

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Dr. Rex Ellis, BFA in Dramatic Art and Speech, 1974

After seeing Rex perform, former department chair Kenneth Campbell approached him about playing Othello. He gave Rex recordings of Richard Burton, Basil Rathbone and James Earl Jones as references for classical Voice and Speech techniques. Rex followed Campbell’s advice and he considers Othello, “THE role of my tenure at VCU.”

Rex at about 8 years old

When Rex went to York County High School, the teachers decided to stage their first musical and he was cast as Marryin’ Sam in Lil Abner. Rex recalls, “It was an introduction to what I could be beyond myself.”

Rex’s graduation portrait from York High School

After a year at Virginia State University and then getting his BFA from VCU, Rex attended Wayne State University for his MFA (he also holds a Masters of Divinity from Virginia Union University, and an Ed.D from the College of William and Mary). Next stop was Albany, NY, where he toured as a member of the Empire State Youth Theatre, including a trip to Israel where he played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

A photo of Rex at Colonial Williamsburg

When he returned to teach speech and theatre at Hampton University in ’78, “a guy came in to ask if we would audition to play parts of slaves at Colonial Williamsburg. A group of us applied for this new living history concept using theatrical techniques to create colonial characters.” About this ground-breaking concept, Rex responds, “Having people talk about slavery was novel. We went through extensive research about Colonial Chesapeake and knew it was important to come to grips with slavery.” Rex started working part time over the summers, and then in 1984, Colonial Williamsburg (CW) created a unit dedicated to African-American History with Rex as the manager. In 1993, CW staged the first slave auction reenactment that received national attention with great controversy and eventually, led to a $400K grant from AT&T to expand the program. This Williamsburg Daily Press profile of Rex talks about Rex’s work at CW and gives you a sense of the range of opinions these reenactments met. The African American Experience program continues at Colonial Williamsburg to this day—you may remember alum Katrinah Carol Lewis (BFA ’03) is now the Artistic Director of Museum Theatre at CW and among her projects, started the ‘Created Equal’ Fourth of July event to explore African American perspectives on the Declaration of Independence.

Rex in costume at Colonial Williamsburg, around 2007

As for Rex, someone from the Smithsonian Institution came calling next, which started now Dr. Rex Ellis’ long tenure at the American History Museum. In 2001, the CEO of Colonial Williamsburg talked him into returning as Vice President of the Historic Area, which put him in charge of all programs and historic operations for eight years.

In 2008 it was back to DC, when Rex was asked to become Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, through the planning stage. The museum finally opened in 2016. He was charged with the planning, developing, directing and managing of all curatorial and education and outreach programs and activities.

Meeting actors Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid!

Rex stayed until 2019, when he retired back to Williamsburg with his wife of 47 years, Paulette. They were high school sweethearts and both attended VCU (her major was accounting). They have two children (Aaron and Amber) and five grandchildren, “I’m doing more babysitting than I thought I’d ever do.” Rex also stays active with the Ft. Monroe Authority as Chair of a federal commission that programs information on African American history and culture. He still does some keynote speaking and voiceover work.

Thinking back to VCU, Rex remarks, “I had a lot of good teachers and I remember them because they were open-minded and willing to use me.”        

Department of Theatre Alumni Newsletter October 2021