OHIO STATE MURDERS A Brief, Powerful Piece — Review
A Black woman is made to explain the source of her suspected anger in Ohio State Murders, the play which marks writer Adrienne Kennedy’s Broadway debut at the age of 91. Not only must this woman, somewhat based on the playwright herself, elaborate on her pain, but she must relive the unspeakable trauma that begat it. The first production at the newly renamed James Earl Jones Theatre is a chilling, 75-minute work of theatre, led by a crackling Audra McDonald, who imbues Kennedy’s words with a blizzard of buried emotion that is both once-in-a-lifetime and, sadly, too identifiable.
The piece being as short as it is, and relying almost entirely on McDonald’s performance—save for about 30 lines from four other cast members, the play is essentially a monologue—a great deal must be left for her and Kennedy to guide you through its surprises and developments. The experience is brief, powerful, and entirely worth it.
But the setup is this: Suzanne Alexander, a successful writer, returns to her titular alma mater to give a lecture on the “violent imagery” that permeates her work. Somewhat guarded by the distance of decades, she takes the audience back to 1949, when her freshman self was fighting the uphill battle Black students had to fight in order to be allowed to major in English, among other racist indignities. Suzanne showed an early mastery over the subject, and was drawn to other works dealing with widespread oppression—a local screening of Battleship Potemkin, her peculiarly-interested professor’s lectures on Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
These interests are visually tied together to a history of injustice—what are art and history if not the records of human struggle?—through Jeff Sugg’s projections, which restrainedly flash glimpses of the film, as well as of the photographs of lynchings Suzanne remembers seeing in church. Kenny Leon’s direction, while not as effective or graceful as it could be, is smart to rely on its production’s better elements, namely McDonald’s magnetic performance and Beowulf Boritt’s set, which features a deep crevasse flurried with constant snow upstage, and a whirl of books hovering closer to its edge.
Those books surround Suzanne, her love and understanding of literature protecting her and reflecting the preservation she finds in these narratives. As her lecture grows darker, these effectively illuminate the importance of having the space and ability to tell and own her story, however troubled—perhaps a clever interpretation of the fact of the production itself, Kennedy’s first on the Main Stem even after a celebrated decades-long career.
Suzanne’s collegiate career takes a turn when she becomes pregnant and alienated from her family, setting in motion a devastating sequence of events that lead her to leave campus earlier than expected. Even later, when she meets a successful Frantz Fanon biographer from a successful D.C. family whose life, for her, represents an almost impossible ideal of Black prosperity, Suzanne is haunted by the events that transpired at Ohio State.
McDonald, well-versed in playing fragile women with an unshakable strength at their core, is in top form. Her voice quivers and upspeaks when Suzanne must convince herself of her sanity and safety, but grows heavy and forceful as experience colors her view of the world. Her physicality wonderfully switches from doe-eyed undergrad to a woman wizened by years of understanding first-hand how the establishment treats, mistreats, and wilfully misunderstands women of color.
Despite the play’s brevity, it becomes a bit hard to remember its purpose around the halfway mark; this is where a stronger directorial hand might have come in handy. But to stay it sticks the landing is an understatement, and to say its last few lines feel like a mic drop is perhaps disrespectful to Kennedy’s sharply wrought, carefully woven work. Still, it is in its final moments that Ohio State Murders makes its case as one of the most powerful addresses written in and towards modern America, from a voice too long left undervalued.
Ohio State Murders is in performance at the James Earl Jones Theatre on West 48th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.