The Broadway Theatre Review: Ohio State Murders
The snow falls somewhere in the distance, seen through a vast triangular opening behind a series of floating or falling bookshelves. All of it gives a sense of disquiet to the forefront of peace. It should be settling, but for some reason, there is an edge of discontent. It’s a vastly abstract structuring, angled with uncertainty that ushers in the Broadway debut of Adrienne Kennedy, a 91-year-old playwright, and her captivating play Ohio State Murders. It seems “she wrote [the play] while teaching at Stanford…[with] passages…pouring forth during the aftershocks of an earthquake.” With Audra McDonald (Broadway’s Frankie and Johnny…), the six-time Tony Award winning actress, standing solidly center, the play strides forward with confidence etched in meaning and energy. The fundamentals are non-linear, and the intellectual emphasis floats as metaphorically as those pages that fall down from the heavens. It’s a strong beginning, drawing us in with a quiet energy. Unfortunately, the play as a whole fails to hold us tight, keeping us intellectually at arm’s length, much like the main character.
McDonald does captures us in her recollections, embedded and delivered from inside a speech given at a college. Her name is Suzanne Alexander, and she has been invited here today to speak. It starts out painstakingly intellectual in nature, drawn inside a tight format that eases us in, but makes it logical and simple for her to jump backward. Yet it shifts, suddenly, internally, to a time when she was a young Black student at Ohio State University. It seems Suzanne has a harrowing tale to tell about her time there, studying and struggling against oppression and racism, and the murder that exists inside the title, a tragedy we don’t know much about just yet. And we will have to be patient for it to drive itself to our door.
Directed with an air of importance and dedication by Kenny Leon (Broadway’s Topdog/Underdog), the air around McDonald’s Suzanne sizzles with anticipation as she dives into her speech. She once was a budding scholar at that University, the one where she, as a Black student, could… no… should keep to certain walkways and of course, to certain majors suitable to her race. She wants to major in English. She has a passion for it, especially after studying under the white English professor Robert Hampshire, played remarkably by Bryce Pinkham (Broadway’s Holiday Inn). But that road is barricaded against her, with obstacles she can’t get around, no matter how smart she is. Professor Hampshire, as odd as he is, sees something brilliant inside her, but beyond having a brief entanglement with her, one that produces twin daughters, he can only shake his head in disbelief that the University is getting in her way. And then he walks away, maybe worrying more about himself than the situation they co-created.
And then you see it. She gets expelled because of her transgression, forced out, and separated from her friend, Iris Ann, played true by Abigail Stephenson (“The Good Fight“). But more importantly, she’s pulled away from her children’s father. And he doesn’t put up much of a fight on anyone’s behalf. It’s a rough road that she must travel, we hear, forced away and forced into living with her Aunt, played powerfully by Lizan Mitchell (Public’s Cullud Wattah), although keeping engaged somewhat with the university. Suzanne falls for a young law student, David, played by Mister Fitzgerald (Public’s A Raisin in the Sun), yet the impact is questionable. Yet we know the murder is coming, oddly showing its head slightly. It is one of her infant daughters who has been murdered, but we won’t know the details until later. But it does keep her attached to that college town, and one that takes over her whole being, even if only superficially.
The writing of Kennedy (He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box) is poetic, capturing the realities of that time with a thoughtful cadence. It showcases the obstacles that Suzanne is faced with at a college that doesn’t really want her kind, or can even see her potential. The energy and anger are clear, burnt into the edges of that V-shaped opening in the background. All thanks to the abstract set design by Beowulf Boritt (Broadway Thérèse Raquin), with equally symbolic lighting by Allen Lee Hughes (Broadway’s Topdog/Underdog), a solid sound design by Justin Ellington (Broadway’s for colored girls…), and subtle costuming by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s How I Learned to Drive). The imagery sits strong on those spiked bookshelves that for some reason seem to have fallen from the sky and implanted themselves at odd angles to those around them. Some are still falling, it seems, hanging violently over their heads, as Kennedy maps out Ohio State’s geography with an eye for detail and blunt racism.
The play is etched with descriptive metaphors, rarely muddled in delivery, but the weaving wandering timeline doesn’t actually achieve the desired effect. There is violence underneath each structural comma, with racism and murder at its core. The detailed descriptions, presented halfway through, of that day when Suzanne’s child is murdered, outside of a hospital clinic, are harrowing yet coolly contained. Ohio State Murders wants us to know that violence against Black people will be ignored, in the long run, internally and externally. But the pain that is seared into Suzanne’s body lives on. McDonald unpacks that inner emotional state with grace and clarity, taking over her body and soul completely. It’s touching and sublime, yet for some reason, the retelling of Suzanne’s trauma doesn’t register as completely as it should. It’s there, hanging in the air like those bookshelves, but it’s suspended, and only threatens destruction.
The cast is uniform in their direction, delivering forth the ideals, but without a ton of connection. The others feel like hazy memories, barely reconstructed in Suzanne’s narrative. They present themselves for a reason, to flesh out the woman, but somehow fail to embellish her with reason and emotion. Suzanne, as a Black intellectual female, suffered, on about every level one can imaging in the telling of the Ohio State Murders. The revelations made hit hard, but somehow not deep, keeping us at arm’s length from a grief that must have been unbearable. As a play, Ohio State Murders remains in the background, slowly being covered up quietly by the falling snow, despite the immense talent of McDonald up front and center.
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