Ohio State Murders review: Audra McDonald astonishes in Adrienne Kennedy's Broadway debut
Adrienne Kennedy has finally come to Broadway.
The renowned Black playwright, who earlier this year was awarded the Gold Medal for Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has been writing influential works for the theater since the '60s, but only now with Ohio State Murders is one of her plays opening on the Great White Way.
It's a long overdue moment, but now Kennedy has one of Broadway's brightest stars to bring her work to life on the stage. Audra McDonald stars as Suzanne Alexander, a stand-in for Kennedy who appears in several of her plays. Like Kennedy, Suzanne is an acclaimed writer who travels the country giving university lectures when she's not penning critical favorites. Ohio State Murders opens with her returning to her alma mater to give a talk that both reflects on her time at the Ohio State University, and answers the question of why there is so much violence in her work.
Richard Termine Audra McDonald in 'Ohio State Murders' on Broadway.
Ohio State Murders then proceeds like a one-woman show. McDonald is on stage for almost the entire run time, delivering the story of her life like a lecture, captivating the audience with an intense emotional conviction. The story doesn't always proceed chronologically; rather, Suzanne jumps from memory to memory based on feelings and associations. The non-linear nature of her narrative keeps the central mystery of the titular murders — who were the victims? Who was the killer? — tense and taut throughout the 75-minute running time.
Surrounded by a backdrop of bookcases that look like they were pulled from a university library and set adrift in an anti-gravity chamber, Suzanne tells the audience about how when she was going to school in the '40s, Black students like her were all but barred from studying English literature. Nevertheless, her passion for Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Ubervilles — and her self-taught skill at elucidating its greatness — grabs the attention of her white male professor (Bryce Pinkham), who sees her talent but proves unable or unwilling to battle the college administrators on her behalf. Viewers who are familiar with Hardy's magnum opus will notice parallels and homages in the narrative, but even those who aren't will learn what they need from the professor's lectures.
It's not just literature that Kennedy quotes, either; rejected from their preferred classes and uninvited to the white girls' sorority parties, Suzanne and her friend Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson) entertain themselves by going to the movies. In one striking instance, this hobby is reflected by projecting parts of Battleship Potemkin on the floating bookshelves, as Suzanne remembers how struck she was by Sergei Eisenstein's passionate revolutionary narrative; stuck in the '40s, she and Iris will have to wait decades for their own much-needed revolution to finally arrive.
Rounding out the cast are Lizan Mitchell and Mister Fitzgerald, who each play multiple characters that come through Suzanne's life for a certain period before moving on. Each actor brings pathos to their role, but they are all supporting players for the master class delivered by McDonald.
To explain too much more would deflate the mystery of Ohio State Murders, but suffice to say that it is a visceral reminder of how dark and twisted the intersection between sex and race can get in America. The play begins with Suzanne Alexander being asked why there's so much violence in her art. By the end, you'll understand the natural response: Try opening a history book, or looking around you. To not use art to process that everyday violence would be a dereliction of duty. B+