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Ohio State Murders

  • Theater, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders
Photograph: Courtesy Richard TermineOhio State Murders

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Audra McDonald stars in Adrienne Kennedy's brief, chilling drama.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

In Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, an established Black writer named Suzanne Alexander—the partially autobiographical central figure in several plays that Kennedy wrote in the 1990s—returns to the Columbus college she attended decades earlier to speak about her experiences there. As she delivers her address, or maybe practices it to herself, flashbacks to the late 1940s and early 1950s flesh out her story. As the title promises, it’s a harrowing one.

In the play’s original 1992 production and its New York premiere in 2007, two actors of different ages divided the role of Suzanne. In its bracing Broadway debut—which also marks the Broadway debut of Kennedy, now 91—both the old and young versions are played by Audra McDonald, who toggles between the two with the masterful emotional control and variety we have come to expect from her. Ohio State Murders is nearly a 70-minute monologue, written in the cadences of a literary personal essay. Most of the other characters who appear onstage speak little or not at all; the exception is a young English professor named Robert Hampshire (played with foggy glassiness by Bryce Pinkham), who takes a shine to the young Suzanne’s brightness after reading her response to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

​​Ohio State Murders | Photograph: Courtesy Richard Termine

Kennedy’s choice of novel is significant. “Inherent in almost all Hardy’s characters are those natural instincts which become destructive because social convention suppresses them,” Hampshire observes. “Hardy absorbs Tess’s personal situation into a vast system of causation.” The American tragedy to which Suzanne ultimately bears witness is similarly ingrained in the parts of her speech that resemble (but are not) digressions. Ohio State Murders is far more straightforward than the experimental works that made Kennedy’s name, like the 1964 fantasia Funnyhouse of a Negro, but it’s less direct than it seems. Suzanne is a cagy narrator: The story’s most obviously dramatic elements are often withheld from us for suspense, or passed over with eerie matter-of-factness. More time is devoted to Professor Hampshire’s readings of canonical texts, and to Suzanne’s detailed descriptions of campus life for a young Black woman at that time: her exclusion from sororities and dorm parties, the degree she was deemed unqualified to earn, the streets she knew she was not to walk.

In director Kenny Leon’s thoughtful production, Beowulf Boritt’s set suggests a storm of research-library shelves, some suspended in midair and some half-buried in the ground, as though Suzanne existed in both the midst of a catastrophe and the ruins of one. The forces stacked against her extend to the back wall of the stage, which is gashed by a craggy ravine—the site of a winter homicide—behind which snow descends continuously. The chills that periodically shoot through this play are part of the same cold front as the steady, muffling whiteness that falls gently in its background. 

Ohio State Murders. James Earl Jones Theatre (Broadway). By Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Kenny Leon. With Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.

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​​Ohio State Murders | Photograph: Courtesy Richard Termine

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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