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Audra McDonald on returning to Broadway in ‘Ohio State Murders’

The six-time Tony Award winner is back onstage this season in the play, which marks playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s Broadway debut.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

When Audra McDonald read Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders for the first time, her “gut was on the floor.” The six-time Tony-winning actress participated in a Zoom pandemic production of Kennedy’s seminal work, based on her own experience at the university, and she was stunned by the material.

“My heart was on the floor. My brain was exploding,” McDonald says of the experience. “For days afterwards, I just kept thinking about the fact that I got to say those words. And I wanted to know more about Adrienne’s experience at Ohio State. I thought, I have to be involved with this. And then once they said, we're gonna produce it on Broadway. I was just like, yes, please, please. Please let me be a part of it.”

Now, she’s back onstage in the inaugural production at the James Earl Jones Theatre in Kennedy’s play as Suzanne, a writer who returns to her alma mater after many years to uncover the truth of what happened while she was there. The production is the first Broadway outing for Kennedy, who at age 91 is “way long overdue” for the spotlight, McDonald says.

The production also marks a reunion between McDonald and director Kenny Leon, who last worked together 14 years ago on the television film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Now, Leon has one word to say about getting to reunite with McDonald: “Hallelujah.”

“Those six Tony Awards are no accident,” Leon says. “When you can get an artist that can trust you completely, and I trust her completely to go where I push her. Doesn’t get better than that. She’s the best.”

New York Theatre Guide spoke to McDonald about bringing Kennedy’s work to the Broadway stage for the first time, how she relates to her character’s experience, and working with Leon again.

Get Ohio State Murders tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

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It’s so exciting to have you back on Broadway and also in Adrienne Kennedy’s Broadway debut. Were you familiar with her work before doing this play?

Not nearly as familiar as I should be. Because I didn't go to drama school – I went to music conservatory – so I didn't really get a chance to study a lot of theatre literature. And so I was doubly behind the curve, especially since there wasn't a lot of Adrienne’s work being produced commercially in a big way. And so, this was my first time really reading one of her plays.

She’s such a monumental playwright and theatrical voice.

She is.

You’ve also worked with Kenny Leon before on A Raisin in the Sun. How does it feel to be working together again?

It’s wonderful. We've been trying to work together again and haven’t figured out which project, so this kind of fell in our lap. He’s such a such an incredible director. He's such he's such a tough director, but he comes from love, and he pushes me harder than just about anyone. But he pushes me with absolute faith that I will get to where I need to go, and I will grow in the process.

Do you relate to your character Suzanne’s experience in the play?

I do. Very much so. And it’s interesting because I see other people in the world who I identify with that also can relate to Suzanne's experience. If you think about it, she was one of 12 Black girls in her dorm of 600 girls in 1949 and that was three years after the first dorm had been integrated. So think about what she was going through.

__Definitely. And the play takes place in the past, but so many of its issues are unfortunately still relevant today. __

They’re unfortunately way too relevant today, as if we're hurtling back to the 1940s. It’s a necessary time to do this. And maybe if these plays had been produced earlier, we wouldn’t be hurtling toward the 1940s in the way that we are.

Get Ohio State Murders tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

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