When it was announced that playwright Adrienne Kennedy would at the age of 91 be produced on Broadway for the first time, I let out a whoop that startled the cat.
I was naturally euphoric over the spotlight finally being turned on one of the nation’s finest dramatic poets, who’s too little known among the general theatergoing public. But why is this playwright’s playwright still one of the best-kept secrets in the American theater?
You are reading: Review: Audra McDonald’s brilliant performance in ‘Ohio State Murders’ is a must-see on Broadway before it closes
Kennedy’s compact dramas, poetic gems carved with scar-like intricacy, don’t obey conventional rules. Mainstream theaters that have cultivated a taste for familiarity in their audiences haven’t had the imagination or the courage to confront the challenge of her work.
Broadway, the high-stakes casino of our commercial theater, isn’t the natural environment for a writer who grew out of New York’s experimental theater scene in the 1960s. But the prospect of seeing Audra McDonald lend her magnificent potency to “Ohio State Murders,” Kennedy’s 1991 drama, seemed almost like a theater critic’s fantasy come true.
A six-time Tony-winning actor, McDonald is not only our greatest living musical theater performer but also one of our finest dramatic actresses. She doesn’t often venture off-Broadway, so producers brought Kennedy to her at the newly renamed James Earl Jones Theatre.
Kenny Leon was enlisted to direct, making him the busiest and most lauded director on Broadway this fall with three well-received productions. (The other two are a revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” and the new musical “Some Like It Hot.”)
I temporarily interrupted my family visit during the holidays to see “Ohio State Murders,” knowing that I likely wouldn’t be back in New York again before it ended its run. And just as I started to write this piece, the news broke that the production, which opened on Dec. 8, would be closing early, on Jan. 15.
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It’s a pity because McDonald’s performance in this 75-minute, largely narrated drama is emotionally devastating — something that no McDonald or Kennedy fan should miss. The production ought to be filmed for television or digital streaming, and I’m hoping that this theatrical occasion doesn’t just fade into memory but can somehow be captured for a wider audience.
I wrote about “Ohio State Murders” in 2021, when it was presented as part of “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence,” an online festival produced by Round House Theatre in association with the McCarter Theatre Center. The play is a mystery in which the victim is also in effect the detective. The crime is a double murder, but the culprit isn’t simply one man but an entire society that has paved the way for such atrocities to occur.
McDonald plays Suzanne Alexander, a distinguished writer who has been invited to give a talk at Ohio State on her work. In particular, she’s asked to discuss the roots of the violent imagery in her writing, a subject that takes her back to her student days on the campus.
Playing both Suzanne as the mature author and Suzanne as the undergraduate intoxicated by reading, McDonald fleshes out the traumatic story of what happened to this Black woman, whose baby twins were killed separately. The actress is not alone on the book-strewn stage (designed with geometric panache by Beowulf Boritt), but it’s her character’s tale, and the responsibility of telling it belongs nearly entirely to her.
Suzanne’s story resembles a plot by the Victorian English writer Thomas Hardy, whose novels she read in an English class at Ohio State taught by a young white lecturer (Bryce Pinkham), who recognizes the brilliance of his shy student. She would like to be an English major, but she is denied this right because of her race.
“It was thought that we were not able to master the program,” Suzanne recalls. “They would allow you to take no more than two required freshman courses.”
Suzanne quickly reaches this limit after taking a “Beowulf” class with the same encouraging teacher. Another English professor who grants her permission to take his seminar is not so receptive to Suzanne’s intellectual abilities. Indeed, he does everything to discourage her from pursuing her love of literature, leaving her feeling more and more alienated at a university that observes a largely informal but nonetheless brutal system of segregation.
“Ohio State Murders” is constructed as a puzzle that Suzanne herself is still desperately trying to piece together. Kennedy connects the dots between the oppression that Suzanne experiences when she arrives at Ohio State in 1949 and the violent crime that shatters her life.
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Suzanne describes herself as having been “almost a cliché of the ultimate virgin,” so her pregnancy is a shock to those who were close to her at the time. The approbation of her lecturer, who calls her into his office to compliment her paper on Hardy, even though initially he has trouble believing that she wrote it herself, is understandably irresistible to her.
As McDonald recounts the story, a ghostly laugh of disbelief trickles from her tightly controlled narration, as though her character still needs the safety valve of this release to maintain her sanity in the wake of what happened.
The catastrophe that befell Suzanne’s babies, heartbreakingly represented by a pair of delicate pink scarves, is embedded in a larger tragedy of race in America. But “Ohio State Murders” is also a drama of one woman’s survival, about how she didn’t succumb, about the aunt (Lizan Mitchell), future husband (Mister Fitzgerald) and future in-laws that rescued her from a fate worse than death.
The poignancy of the play is pervasive, not depending on moments of high tragedy. One of the most piercing moments is when McDonald, as the older Suzanne, recalls having to declare herself an elementary education major.
“How I missed the imagery, the marvel, the narratives, the language of the English courses,” she recalls. “The new courses made me depressed. I hated them.”
This last line is delivered by McDonald with all the anguish it deserves. I will never forget this howl of disgust or the cruel administrative denial that provoked it.
McDonald has once again burned herself into my permanent memory. Kennedy’s stature was assured without Broadway. But this production, sensitively expanded by Leon for the commercial stage, has not only honored a most deserving playwright but has brought honor to Broadway itself.
“Ohio State Murders,” at New York’s James Earl Jones Theatre, runs through Jan. 15.