At the James Earl Jones Theater in Manhattan, playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s revival ( first performed in 1991) of “Ohio State Murders” finally opened on Broadway under the direction of Kenny Leon, starring Audra McDonald.
The play is only 75 minutes, but McDonald leads us through a tragic tale so riveting it feels like your heart has been kidnapped. How this woman endured such a horrible experience and still maintains her sanity is a wonder.
Set mainly in Ohio circa 1952, this is a mystery with the answer staring us down from the start. The story centers on a middle-aged African-American writer named Suzanne Alexander, who has returned to Columbus to discuss the violent imagery in her work. It doesn’t take long to locate the source of her anxiety which lies in the abduction and murder (drowning) of her twin daughters while she was studying there and unmarried.
Kennedy, as an undergraduate at Ohio State in the early 50, s faced a tremendous amount of discrimination for being a woman, and an African American woman. And more to the point of her suffering, she was targeted. She was gifted and, therefore, a threat to the racist establishment.
At the school, a white classmate accuses her younger self of stealing a watch, an ironic twist since Suzanne owns heirloom jewelry gifted by her parents. Despite her undeniable skill, the English department only allowed her, or any other African American student, to declare a major in English without special consent, which is rarely given.
McDonald expertly slides between her older and younger self with the skill of a seasoned thespian. Suzanne, aka Sue is as innocent as a kitten chasing a ball of yawn down a city street packed with danger. Soon, her spirit is challenged, and she’s faced with the ugliest human nature. At first, she hides between the pages of the literature she is reading, but the way of the world violently pulls her out of the safe place. It’s inspiring to watch the fragile, wide-eyed, and hopeful “girl” survive the tragedies (on two separate occasions) to bravely create a solid career for herself—a chilling victory.
In both roles (young and old) McDonald grabs the language and spins a tale worth listening to and watching. The play’s interior design is simple and gives her nothing to hide behind. She only has her words that paint the horror of her journey. There is very little dialogue in “Ohio State Murders,.” It’s more monologue laced up like a sturdy boot. And she shares a story that she’s tried to understand for decades.
That the father of the twins (little girls) was her white English professor (Bryce Pinkham). It was not a romantic relationship. It was more a biological and later a forensic fact. He knows that she’s gifted and openly admires her essays. He teaches her to love Hardy and encourages her to go further. On the surface, a good guy?
The way the play is bold. There’s no romance to be seen between them. Inside the classroom, he stands reading, lecturing, and offering scattered words in her direction. There is no comfort for Sue. Once he knows he’s the father, he cooly and firmly dismisses her. In a conventional drama, we might see the professor wooing or comforting or ultimately dismissing Sue; here, we experience him only in small fragments, reading, lecturing, and saying a few words in her general direction. The same technique keeps her roommate (Abigail Stephenson), aunt (Lizan Mitchell), and even her boyfriend (Mister Fitzgerald) at a distance, with Suzanne describing their interactions rather than Sue engaging in them.
Leon is as skilled as a brain surgeon, and his intelligence is evident from the moment you walk into the theater. There’s no curtain. The stage is set, and in a loop is Sue’s voice playing. She’s answering a question that we need to hear. Only after the play is over do we understand the impact of her voice. How Leon introduces us to the other players in her life provides just enough distance for us to understand that feeling of isolation. These people are, after all, memories, silhouettes in her mind illuminated by Allen Lee Hughes and clothed by Dede Ayite.
Sound and music by Justin Ellington and Dwight Andrews ideally give us the place and time. At the heart of Adrienne Kennedy’s murder mystery — “Ohio State Murders” — is racism. The fact that a crime is committed against three women of color: Sue, and her twin daughters, delivers a devastating blow. Everything around her informs her and us that this is a place where she is not wanted. Sue understands it. It’s soaked into her bones and occupies the space between her ears. “A city should have a sacred geography,” she recites, “never arbitrary but planned in strict accord with the dictates of a doctrine that the society upholds.”
In summary, Sue was the victim of deliberate isolation not because she was dangerous but because she wasn’t one of “them,” and she was whip-smart and God-gifted. The alchemy of Kennedy, Jones, and McDonald that has shaped “Ohio State Murders” is miraculous.
“Ohio State Murders” runs through Feb. 12 at the James Earl Jones Theater, Manhattan; ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.