At the curtain call, Audra McDonald and the rest of the cast pointed to a huge photograph on stage of Adrienne Kennedy, the playwright of “Ohio State Murders,” who is making her Broadway debut at the age of 91, asking us to applaud Kennedy as well.
It was an unusual gesture, but a fitting one. There is symbolic significance to Kennedy, perhaps the oldest living playwright in America and among the most respected, finally making her Broadway debut – all the more so because “Ohio State Murders” is housed in the theater newly renamed after James Earl Jones, also 91, in a production directed by Kenny Leon, and starring Audra McDonald, the most honored living Broadway actress: Four Black artists who deserve our appreciation and our attention, connected to a play that explores subtle and blatant forms of racism.
There is some irony, then, that I actually liked this version of “Ohio State Murders” somewhat less than a production of the same eerie, riveting, challenging play that I saw early last year, in an online festival of Kennedy’s plays by Round House and McCarter theaters – and that the presumed exigencies of mounting the show on Broadway probably has something to do with my reaction.
McDonald portrays a famous writer who has returned to her alma mater Ohio State University to give a lecture. “I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work, bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead Nazis, dying Jesus. The chairman said ‘we do want to hear about your brief years here at Ohio State, but we also want to talk to you about violent imagery in your stories and plays.” As Suzanne’s chilling story unfolds, it becomes clear that the two — the violent imagery, and her time at Ohio State — are related.
“Ohio State Murders” is in part based on Kennedy’s personal experiences as an undergraduate at Ohio State University in the late 1940s, pockmarked with what can be called genteel racism.
As we hear in an audio interview with her grandson piped into the theater before the play begins: “I didn’t know that Ohio State didn’t accept blacks into the English department. I was given the runaround so I ended up majoring in education and I was very unhappy with it.” As she’s elaborated in other interviews: A professor to whom she wrote about George Bernard Shaw accused her of plagiarism because he didn’t believe somebody like her could write so well. In “Ohio State Murders,” young Suzanne’s English professor, Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) doesn’t outright accuse her of plagiarism, but it’s clear that’s what he’s thinking when he drills her with questions, starting with “Did you write this paper yourself?” – but Suzanne, too, is not allowed to major in English because of her race, and instead reluctantly majors in education.
These incidents, though, turn out to be the least virulent examples. Suzanne explains that she learned right at the beginning of freshman year that the few Black students at the university were discouraged from even walking in certain areas of the campus, including a residential district encompassed by a steep ravine.
“A year and a half later,” she says casually, “one of my baby twin daughters would be found dead there. That was later. “
And right there, in that abrupt shocker casually delivered , we experience a prime example of what makes “Ohio State Murders” simultaneously intriguing and challenging.
The storytelling in “Ohio State Murders” is deliberately oblique, and distancing. Although there are four other actors in the cast, they rarely speak if at all, often engaged in a kind of mute show that Suzanne narrates. Her narration is bizarrely casual and elliptical; we learn almost as an aside about her sudden out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and of the abduction and infanticide. “Ohio State Murders” is a mystery story and a horror story, but both of these aspects of the play must compete with many moments that initially feel like digressions: Suzanne describes at length the geography of the campus, Professor Hampshire (supposedly in class) reads extensive passages from Thomas Hardy’s novel, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “King Arthur,” Suzanne talks at length about the Eisenstein movie “Battleship Potemkin.” There is so much that feels random that it forces us to realize that it isn’t. The stories (especially from Hardy’s novel) have parallels in Suzanne’s own, but we come to understand that the violence, the racism — the violations — were as much a part of this young Black woman’s education at Ohio State as the courses she took, the literature she read, the culture she discovered. She awakened to the beauty and the brutality of Western Civilization simultaneously. And Suzanne’s unnaturally disengaged tone seems to emphasize how much the trauma permanently numbed and damaged the innocent young woman who became the writer of violent imagery
In previous productions, and in the script, two actresses portray Suzanne, the present-day narrator, and Suzanne in her youth, as if to drive home the contrast and the transformation. As Suzanne says: “With my preference for Peter Pan blouses and precise straightened curls I had been almost a cliche of the ultimate virgin.” But in the Broadway production, there is just one Suzanne.
If I were a producer of this play in a 1,000-seat Broadway theater charging a top ticket price of $200+, I too would surely want to focus as much attention as possible on Audra McDonald, who is an undeniable crowd-pleaser and gives her all, as usual. McDonald is an actress whose emotions seem to emerge from her depths to play out so powerfully and transparently on the surface that we can’t help but share in them. I couldn’t help wondering though: Would a separate, numbed-out Suzanne have been more effective?
The design for this Broadway debut production is inventive and expensive-looking — Beowulf Boritt’s monumental set of library bookstacks floating in midair, and Jeff Sugg’s projection design, including excerpts of Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” cleverly projected in slivers of the set. Because this is Broadway, an actor of such caliber as Mister Fitgerald, who impressed me no end in such Off Broadway productions as “Exception to the Rule,” is enlisted to portray two characters who between them have a total of five lines of dialogue. All these choices, and the magnets and other items with the show’s logo that they sell in the lobby, make sense for a Broadway show.
Of some two dozen plays by Adrienne Kennedy in a career spanning six decades, “Ohio State Murders” is among her most accessible, but it is still a difficult work, and hard to argue that the commercial world of Broadway as currently construed is the obvious best showcase for it. It must be said that there are likely other reasons besides their elusive poetry why Kennedy’s plays have been more studied than produced, as she has long complained. Might her race and her gender be a factor? After all, her contemporary Edward Albee (who much admired her work) was not known to be an easy playwright either, but he made his Broadway debut at age 34, in 1962, just two years before Kennedy wrote her first and still most famous play, “Funnyhouse of A Negro.”
That play was revived in a stellar production at the Signature Theater in 2016, and I have seen five more productions of her plays in the half dozen years since then. If she has been under-appreciated in the past, her current Broadway debut may be a sign not just that there is a change in attitude toward her work that will result in more productions in the future – but also the promise of a shift in what people think belongs on Broadway.
Update: Ohio State Murders will close on January 15, 2023.
Ohio State Murders
James Earl Jones Theater
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $68 to $244. Digital lottery: $54. In-person rush: $39
Written by Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Kenny Leon
Set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Jeff Sugg, wig/hair/make-up design by J. Jared Janas, original music by Dwight Andrews
Cast: Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham, Lizan Mitchell, Mister Fitzgerald, and Abigail Stephenson
Photographs by Richard Termite