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'Ohio State Murders' review — Audra McDonald chills and thrills in Adrienne Kennedy drama

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The most important thing to highlight about Ohio State Murders on Broadway is that it is here. At long last, it is here, with a trio of Black theatre icons (and icons, period) attached. Two are Audra McDonald, the six-time Tony-winning star of the production, and James Earl Jones, for whom the theatre housing Ohio State Murders has just been renamed.

And finally, there's Adrienne Kennedy, who wrote such masterworks as Funnyhouse of a Negro in her decades-long Off-Broadway career that pushed the boundaries of theatrical writing. At 91 years old, she is now a Broadway playwright. With a Theater Hall of Fame induction and multiple other lifetime achievement awards under her belt already, it's an honor long overdue.

One can wager various guesses as to the delay. Kennedy herself cites racism, and she would know — parts of Ohio State Murders are based on her own experiences facing academic discrimination as an aspiring writer at her alma mater of the title. Another is the belief that mainstream audiences (and even theatremakers) might not know what to make of Kennedy's experimental writing, which often abandons realism in favor of symbolism, allegories, and pretzel-like twists of time and space to explore the Black experience.

Not that that's any particular excuse. We can't expand what flies as Broadway theatre if no one dares to try. This Kenny Leon-directed production is imperfect, but it deserves credit for trying and for what it gets right, including McDonald's riveting lead performance.

Ohio State Murders, which features one of Kennedy's more linear plots, is a good choice for testing the waters. This still being Kennedy, of course, it's told out of chronological order, by the writer Suzanne Alexander (McDonald). Suzanne is giving a lecture on why violence features so heavily in her works: because she's also a grieving mother whose twin daughters were murdered, and the memory still weighs heavily on her mind.

An out-of-order retelling makes sense for such a story: Suzanne is trying to piece together multiple fragmented, traumatic memories — of getting underestimated for her talents, then rejected from the English program, then pregnant, then expelled, then undone by loss — in real time as she talks about all this openly for the first time.

Ohio State Murders is at its best when Suzanne is unraveling her memories for the audience. The short scenes of dialogue, most of which are with her English professor Robert Hampshire, stall the play's momentum. In those moments, Leon can't quite seem to decide whether his Ohio State Murders is closer to a memory play or a theatrical memoir.

But we can't disregard Hampshire, though he's unremarkably aloof and Bryce Pinkham plays him as such. He's also the father of Suzanne's twins (this isn't a spoiler), and is, theatrically, her perfect foil.

He and Suzanne each deliver lectures during Ohio State Murders, both with a certain emotionlessness. But while his matter-of-fact tone is disinterested, Suzanne's is anything but. There is a palpable, thinly veiled rage simmering beneath most of McDonald's expertly layered performance. Rage at Ohio State for dismissing her writing talents because of her Blackness, at Hampshire for tossing her aside the minute she became pregnant, at everyone involved in covering up the identity of her child's murderer because they were (you guessed it) white.

McDonald is so transformative that in her few moments of bygone joy, such as when she convincingly plays with a pink scarf as though it were a real child, we momentarily forget Suzanne's anger. But when it brings her to her knees as she finally, for one piercing moment, lets all her pain boil over, we're reminded anew that the most violent force in Ohio State Murders is racism itself. "Did you write this yourself?" Hampshire doubts, for example, of a brilliant assignment Suzanne submits for his class. Small microaggressions and murderous acts are all rooted in the same hatred.

Kennedy lets this point suggest itself, and Leon's direction of the actors smartly preserves the subtlety of her writing. Beowulf Boritt's set, too, with library stacks akimbo in front of a gaping, dark ravine and snowfall, sets the sinister tone without a word, aided by Allen Lee Hughes's lighting.

If you're looking for a show that announces its themes with pomp and circumstance, Ohio State Murders isn't it. Such an even-keeled approach might make a longer show dull, but at just 75 minutes, Ohio State Murders holds attention overall amid its muddy moments. And as McDonald's performance attests, nothing is as it seems on the surface. There's plenty bubbling below. This is a murder mystery of sorts, after all, so put on your detective's hat and keep your eyes and ears peeled for the clues.

Ohio State Murders is at the James Earl Jones Theatre through February 12. Get Ohio State Murders tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders. (Photo by Richard Termine)

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