Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald returns to Broadway in Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders. The harrowing character study depicts the story of the fictional Suzanne Alexander (McDonald), a successful writer who returns to her alma mater to present “the violent imagery” in her work, and thus recalls the horrific circumstances that befell her as an undergraduate student in the late 1940s to early 50s.
The play, originally commissioned by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, opened in 1992, and was presented 15 years later in New York City. This production marks the play’s Broadway premiere and an innovative departure from its original casting, which featured two actresses cast as the present-day Suzanne and the character as an emerging writer. McDonald plays both roles, delivering a master class of movement, vocal inflection, and intent.
No Tea, No Shade:
Beowulf Boritt’s hovering scenic design — a cascade of encyclopedia-packed bookshelves descending from the rafters and jutting from the floor at imposing angles, provides a roadmap for Suzanne’s memories as she recalls the torment of a racist environment where she was one of a handful of Black students among the 600 young women in her dorm. “The schools I had attended in Cleveland were an even mixture of immigrant and black,” she recalls. “You were judged on grades. But here race was foremost.”
A schism, far upstage, can be interpreted as a torn page, the jutting topography of the nearby ravine where her dead baby is discovered, or the fractured memories of a woman in perpetual mourning. The surfaces also serve Jeff Sugg’s projection designs, which graphically depict racist acts of the period, while Allen Lee Hughes’ narrowly focused lighting beckons the audience as if they are entrapped in a film close-up.
The design elements fuel McDonald’s performance, which unravels with intentional pause. Director Kenny Leon, also represented on Broadway this season as the director of Topdog/Underdog and a producer of the flashy musical Some Like It Hot, brings the best out of McDonald, who has admitted to her own struggles while a student at Julliard.
McDonald’s vocal prowess pays off — though she doesn’t sing a note, the actress creates two distinct versions of Suzanne. An optimistic student with birdlike inflections and perfect posture, particularly as she gravitates toward an early-career English professor (another transformative and ultimately creepy performance by Bryce Pinkham), gives way to a life burdened with grief. Shifts in movement and tempo age Suzanne with seamless transition. The result is heartbreaking.
Let’s Have a Moment:
The play’s title offers a straightforward indication that two murders take place. The who, what, why, and where of the second incident may appear easily telegraphed for some, though at a recent performance, the reveal induced a collective gasp from the audience. Playwright Kennedy describes this moment with time stamps and narrative descriptions delivered by McDonald with precise accuracy and pain so deep, so encompassing; it nearly swallows her whole.
From the systemic implications of an academic structure built on white supremacy to the cultural backlash of interracial relationships, the subject of racism seeps into the corners of Ohio State Murders.
“I knew whites had killed Negroes, although I had not witnessed it. Thoughts of secret white groups murdering singed the edge of the mind,” Suzanne recalls, considering who the culprits might be in this particular incident. “I was often so tense that I wound the plastic pink curlers in my hair so tightly that my head bled.”
The Last Word:
“She has her own rhythm,” said McDonald of Kennedy’s playwrighting to the New York Times. “Even where her voice sits, you know, and then she gets a little — not lost in the thought, but she’s still emotionally tied to all of it, which I find so moving. I want to be able to capture that.”
Perhaps the future will bring more McDonald-Kennedy collaborations. The play is part of a four-work cycle — the Alexander Plays — that depicts the life of its central character. In the meantime, McDonald gives yet another performance of a lifetime, and chances are a seventh Tony Award isn’t far behind.
Ohio State Murders plays on Broadway at the James Earl Jones Theatre through February 12, 2023.