Playwright Adrienne Kennedy reaches Broadway, briefly, with ‘Ohio State Murders’

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As theatergoers shuffle into the James Earl Jones Theatre and plop down on its plush red seats before performances of “Ohio State Murders,” the voice of Adrienne Kennedy filters out of the playhouse’s speakers in a low din.

Kennedy, viewed as one of America’s great living playwrights, has not seen the production. “Ohio State Murders” is the first of her plays to appear on Broadway, but the 91-year-old moved from Manhattan to Virginia a decade ago, and does not travel easily.

Audra McDonald, the six-time Tony winner, provides an impressive performance as Suzanne Alexander, and the performer’s presence was central to the play’s ability to reach Broadway. But when McDonald and the rest of the cast take their bows, they turn and point toward an image of Kennedy behind them.

Kennedy was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2018 and has long been admired by academics for her avant-garde narratives — her stories twist and tumble, jumping backward and forward — and for her uncompromising presentations of American racism. Her best-known play is “Funnyhouse of a Negro.”

It took decades, and a virtual COVID tryout, for her words to receive an airing on Broadway. “Ohio State Murders,” directed by Kenny Leon, opened last month to strong reviews.

But attendance has been weak. Week-long average crowds have not touched 70% capacity so far, and have been under 50% the past three weeks, according to box office data. And on Thursday, producers said they were moving the show’s closing date from Feb. 12 to Jan. 15.

The 75-minute monologue-driven mystery follows Suzanne, whom Kennedy based partially on herself, as she offers a lecture tracing her time as a student at a midcentury Ohio State University divided by racism.

As the play hurtles toward tragedy, McDonald recounts memories at length in a quivering voice.

McDonald first played the part in June 2021, for a virtual benefit, when Broadway was shuttered and wrestling with its post-COVID, post-George Floyd identity.

After the virtual reading, the play stuck with Leon, who won a Tony in 2014 for his direction of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and he resolved to transfer Kennedy’s work to the stage.

“I can’t seem to get it out of my head now,” Leon said of “Ohio State Murders,” which was published in 1992, “I wake up thinking about parts of it all the time.”

Leon and McDonald have both said they consulted often with a grateful Kennedy as they planned the Broadway production. It is an intense, dark play that keeps an anxious audience leaning forward.

The specific areas where Suzanne’s story and Kennedy’s personal history overlap are not always clear, a meta mystery layered onto the production.

Kennedy, who also attended Ohio State University, now lives in Williamsburg, Va., after decades spent on the Upper West Side.

She told The New York Times that an Ohio State professor once accused her of plagiarizing an essay. She said it was “inconceivable” to the professor that she could write well. Suzanne faces similar indignities in the play.

Leon, who said he has received about 100 emails from the playwright over the course of the show’s journey to Broadway, estimated that the character of Suzanne is about 50% Kennedy.

“She wouldn’t tell you what is what: What part of it is autobiographical, and what is stuff she’s making up?” Leon told the Daily News. “She would just send me stories or ideas about the way she grew up. Who her grandfather was. Who her father was.”

Leon first came across Kennedy’s work in college, when he read “The Owl Answers,” and said he hopes his production of “Ohio State Murders” can leave a mark on the theater world, expanding “how young writers of color see themselves and understand what’s possible.”

For a little more than a week, McDonald is set to continue to interpret the play’s searing monologue. Crowds finding their seats will detect Kennedy’s voice speaking softly about New York in the background. Leon lifted the audio from a quarter-century-old interview Kennedy did with her grandson.

“I’m doing a production,” Leon said. “But I’m also honoring her body of work.”