Many decades after her brilliant and unsettling plays became seen Off Broadway, at regional theaters or, sometimes, not at all, the great playwright Adrienne Kennedy is making her Broadway debut tonight when her 1992 work Ohio State Murders opens as the inaugural production at the newly renamed James Earl Jones Theatre.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, the acclaimed 91-year-old Kennedy was blunt about why Broadway took so long: “It’s because I’m a Black woman,” she said, and one need look no further than Broadway’s other criminally late embrace – of Alice Childress and her wonderful 1955 play Trouble In Mind, which finally received an exceptional Broadway staging last year – to recognize the truth of the statement.
So the decision to bring Adrienne Kennedy to Broadway – or, perhaps more accurately, to bring Broadway to Adrienne Kennedy – is worthy of praise before so much as a single syllable is uttered on stage. Adrienne Kennedy is on Broadway.
For the occasion, the producers behind the show have assembled an amazing team of creative talent, from director Kenny Leon, one of the best directors working on Broadway right now – see his Topdog/Underdog for the slamdunk proof – to star Audra McDonald, whose talents on both the musical and non-musical stage are among Broadway’s most cherished.
Unfortunately, like nervous parents giving their kids a bit more attention than they might need, Ohio State Murders in a production that’s sometimes just much for its own good, portentous when it needn’t be, with a here-and-there vibe of being overcooked when pared-down simplicity might be called for.
The story itself needs no help grabbing our attention: A fictional tale set on the segregated campus of Ohio State University in the late 1940s-early 1950s – Kennedy attended the school then, and her use of detail, from campus geography, the dorm-life racism, the day-in-day-out bias and outright hate experienced by students of color – turns Ohio State Murders into something of a time machine, a portal back to a life and era made vivid by a writer’s words.
McDonald plays writer Suzanne Alexander, who, in the early 1990s, returns to her alma mater as a guest speaker discussing the violent imagery in her fiction. In the lecture-within-the-play, Alexander recounts her experience as a student at Ohio State decades before, memories that encompass youthful hope and intellectual curiosity as well as early encounters with racism and loneliness.
The tale turns darker, much darker, when young Suzanne becomes pregnant by a white professor, and later when the horrific incidents that give the play its title arrive to devastating impact, both on Alexander and on those of us hearing her story.
Despite the larger implications of Suzanne’s story – the murders and the long public silence that followed them can be traced directly to racism and bigotry on levels both personal and institutional – the story is a delicate one, its telling perhaps best undertaken in an intimate atmosphere and with as little melodrama and foreshadowing as the teller can muster.
And here is where Ohio State Murders underwhelms. McDonald, far and away one of Broadway’s greatest performers, brings such considerable emotional weight – and expectation – to the stage that Ohio State Murders feels loaded with portent from the get-go. The set, designed by the always inspired Beowulf Boritt, is dominated by bookcases hanging, tilted, in mid-air and planted like toppled gravestones on the ground, while Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting design literalizes the shadows of memory into a gothic and gloomy visual statement.
McDonald has a power that goes a long way in supplying the gut punches required, despite a performance – and a production – that leans heavily on the ominous and steers the audience to assumptions and predictions that would better be developed as surprises. In supporting roles, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) is sufficiently creepy as the unhinged professor, and both Abigail Stephenson (as Suzanne’s college roommate) and Lizan Mitchell (in several roles) impress in their limited times on stage (as does Mister Fitzgerald as two of Suzanne’s very different suitors).
Unlike previous stagings of the play, Off Broadway and elsewhere, the Broadway production features McDonald as both the younger and older versions of Suzanne, and here the actor is a marvel, conveying a student’s excitement with a heady new world that she’ll soon learn doesn’t want her, and as an accomplished author whose success can’t outrun her grief. It’s in the portrayal of those contrasts that McDonald finds something close to perfection in a flawed production.