The Broadway production of Ohio State Murders commemorates two important firsts: the opening of the Cort Theatre as the newly renovated and renamed James Earl Jones Theatre and the Broadway debut of legendary 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy, a three-time Obie Award winner for both Sleep Deprivation Chamber (Signature Theatre) and June and Jean in Concert (Joseph Papp Public Theatre) in 1996 and Theatre for a New Audience’s Off Broadway premiere of Ohio State Murders in 2007. Audra McDonald not surprisingly gives an extraordinary performance in a role that is almost a monologue and keeps her on stage for the entire length of the play’s 70-minute running time. This is the first time that Kennedy has allowed the two roles of the older author Suzanne Alexander and her younger college self to be played by one actress, here the mercurial McDonald who is certainly up to the task.
While Kennedy’s plays like Funnyhouse of a Negro, A Lesson in Dead Language and A Rat’s Mass are famously experimental in form, Ohio State Murders is more conventional but still manages to invent a new format. The play is framed as a lecture given at a college alma mater and then as fictional author Suzanne Alexander (played by McDonald), Kennedy’s alter ego in four plays, recounts her memories of her two years at Ohio State University we see the events reenacted by four actors playing seven other roles. However, they hardly ever get to speak as they are mainly narrated by McDonald. This deceptively simple form belies the fact the play is at the same time a murder mystery, a biography of its leading character, a memory play and an investigation into race relations in America.
Suzanne Alexander has been invited back to Ohio State University, which she had attended as a young student from 1949 to 1951, to give a talk on the violent imagery in her work. As she narrates the story of her college years, McDonald also becomes her younger self along with five other people from her life at that time as she recalls them: Robert Hampshire, her favorite English professor; her roommate Iris Ann; Miss Dawson, the Caucasian head of Suzanne’s dorm; her Aunt Louise; Mrs. Tyler, her Black landlady; her boyfriend Val; and David, the law student she eventually marries.
In the even tones of memory recollected and with no animosity in her voice, Suzanne weaves a spell as she describes academic life for the six African American female students, ostracized by the white girls both in class and in the dorm, and made to feel uncomfortable in certain parts of the campus or in town. Their sorority has no building of its own. Even in the English Department, she is not made to feel welcome. The Black students are put on probation before they can declare English as a major.
Suzanne’s story alternates between poetic description of the campus, her initial excitement over academia, tales of her family, and events of her life in Columbus told out of chronological order, but woven together in a pattern all their own. She discovers the novels of Thomas Hardy and the films of Eisenstein, she has a brief affair with a teacher, and she is personally affected by the Ohio State murders committed on campus. All the seemingly disparate pieces of her life finally come together in this engrossing one hour and ten minute play. We eventually understand why violent imagery dominates Suzanne’s work.
McDonald is mesmerizing as she speaks Kennedy’s strong, clear, poetic and evocative prose. We never forget that McDonald’s Suzanne Alexander is giving a lecture but she changes ages in an instant as she becomes the wide-eyed and innocent college student in love with learning and new ideas, and then returns to being the mature author with a shocking story to tell. McDonald shifts beautifully between idyllic scenes of college life, the ugly face of racism in the dorm and on campus, and the off-stage violence that defines the murders. While the play is not told in strict chronological order there is no problem in following the story of these few years in the early 1950’s that shape Suzanne Alexander’s life.
While the other actors do not get to say much, they make their presence felt. As Professor Robert Hampshire, Bryce Pinkham (who is allowed to give pieces of his own lectures on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Malory’s King Arthur)d creates an academic who is immersed entirely in his own world. Abigail Stephenson as roommate Iris Ann, a music student, appears to be playing an exquisite violin solo, though she never gets to speak. Lizan Mitchell does yeoman service playing three roles: the prim and bigoted Miss Dawson, the caring Aunt Louise, and the understanding Mrs. Tyler. Mister Fitzgerald manages to make two of Suzanne’s boyfriends (David Alexander who she eventually marries and Val, a classmate who abandons her when she becomes pregnant by another man) entirely different.
Kenny Leon who has become the go-to-guy for revivals of classic Black dramas (Topdog/Underdog, A Soldier’s Play, A Raisin in the Sun, Fences) has directed in an understated manner which is perfect for this explosive material and maintains the lyrical mood throughout which makes the play all the more powerful. He gives McDonald, in a role different from anything she has previous played in New York, able support as she is required to play different ages, moods and states of maturity.
Beowulf Boritt’s setting is a surrealist feat of its own: 16 bookcases are perched at various angles and are used to represent the law library, a classroom, a dorm room, a parlor, etc. Jeff Sugg’s projection design creates a snow storm which varies in times and intensity giving a chilly mood to the events on stage. The lighting by Allen Lee Hughes is so subtle that one is surprised when it segues into another scene. While the characters do not change their outfits, Dede Ayite’s costumes are completely suitable to their several roles including McDonald’s blue blouse and grey pleated skirt which works for both her adult lecturer role and her early 1950’s demure and proper student. Dwight Andrews’ original music is both haunting and poignant. The period hair/wig and make up design is the work of J. Jared Janas who is quickly becoming one of the busiest people working in the New York theater.
Although Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders is brief, Audra McDonald elevates this to an acting tour de force as she plays the same woman 40 years apart as well as shifting mood over and over again. Its understated depiction of institutional racism in a world where it is taken for granted is both chilling and revealing for those of us who have not endured it. While the play is challenging in its unusual form, it is also one you won’t soon forget. McDonald and Kenny Leon have helped to give Kennedy a fine debut production.
Ohio State Murders (through January 15, 2023)
James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 15 minutes without an intermission