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Onstage: A Portrait of Race in America

November 13, 2018 School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies


Behind the scenes discussion with students preparing for emotional roles in an adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.”

By Kate Spanos ’16

Highlighting the everyday experiences of black Americans in a way that is both illuminating and disarming is no small task. “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a moving piece of theater adapted from Claudia Rankine’s acclaimed book of poetry, does both. We spoke with theatre majors Kyle Starling ’20 and Molly Boyle ’19 about the emotionally challenging process of preparing for their roles and how director Shirley Jo Finney created a space to explore and process the difficult material.

Citizen addresses the difficult topic of everyday racial aggressions in America. What role do you play in the production and what did you do to prepare for this challenging role?

Kyle Starling (KS): I play Citizen #4. Throughout the process, director Shirley Jo Finney talked to us about the need to be present with our feelings in order to be honest and fully embody what Claudia Rankine intended for this play. “Citizen” requires us, as actors, to tap into our authentic selves and apply our experiences to Rankine’s lyrical text.

Molly Boyle (MB): As Citizen #5, I take on multiple personas of people who have hurt Citizen #1 in some way due to her race, such as a 12-year-old girl who comments on her appearance, a well-intentioned but ignorant friend and an insensitive coworker. Preparation involved a vast amount of self-reflection and emotional overhaul that was challenging but absolutely necessary in order to achieve the richness of storytelling that this play demands.

Can you describe a breakthrough moment in the rehearsal process?

MB: Shirley Jo warned us at the beginning of the process that we would go through many emotional and intellectual revolutions. We discussed the various barriers that we build up to distance ourselves from the pain of our pasts, both personal and inherited. As a white woman, I had to reconcile with my inherited history and with the hatred, violence and abuse that my race has inflicted upon people of color for centuries. After calling out that feeling of shame and accepting my responsibility to carry it, I was no longer hindered by it during rehearsals and in my daily life.

Why do you think it is important for people to see this production?

MB: People need to see this show because it examines the circumstantial struggles specific to people of color while simultaneously asking the audience to understand that the emotional experience of these struggles is universal. Emotions do not discriminate, and “Citizen” demands that audience members see themselves in every human experience, no matter our differences.

KS: This production doesn’t shy away from the truth and speaks to a human desire to be seen and to feel safe and nurtured. This is an opportunity to learn and grow as a community.

“Citizen: An American Lyric” produced by the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies runs at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center through Friday, November 16. Each performance is followed by a talkback led by a panel of scholars and artists who are experts in racial dynamics in the United States. The school encourages audiences to stay for the talkback to process and reflect on the difficult content presented in the performance.

Tickets available at

Citizen: An American Lyric
Theatre majors Kyle Starling ’20 and Molly Boyle ’19 perform in "Citizen: An American Lyric." (Photos by Thai Nguyen)