By: Paulanne Simmons
December 19, 2022: Ohio State Murders was first performed in 1991 at the Yale Repertory Theater. Sixteen years later, the play premiered at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival and was produced off Broadway at Theater for a New Audience. Now, twenty-two years later, the play has landed on Broadway, directed by Kenny Leon, with Audra McDonald in the role of Suzanne Alexander, a famous writer and former student at Ohio State University.
Many are asking what took the play so long to make its Broadway debut. One could just as easily ask, why is it on Broadway at all. In the first place, the play clocks in at a mere 75 minutes, hardly Broadway fare. And although it boasts the supreme Audra McDonald, Leon has directed such a restrained portrayal this fine actress’s performance is reminiscent of a thoroughbred held back by an incompetent jockey.
But even if Leon had done his job better, Adrienne Kennedy’s script, a monologue delivered by Alexander, who returns to the scene of the crime years later to explain why her writing contains so much violent imagery, is lacking in dramatic and emotional content.
And if you’re expecting a mystery, forget it. Alexander reveals the murderer very early in the evening. It was Robert Hampshire, her white English professor, and the father of her twin girls.
But the real villains in this production are all the white people who made Alexander’s life miserable. The white girls in her dorm ostracized her and treated her with scorn and distain. They even accuse her of theft. The racist administrators at the school would not let her major in English, despite her obvious talent in the field. The white police question her endlessly but don’t take the murders seriously.
Although four actors play some of the people in Alexandra’s life ((Bryce Pinkham is the English professor, Lizan Mitchell is Alexander’s Aunt Louise; Mister Fitzgerald is her boyfriend, a law student named David; Abigail Stephenson is Alexander’s friend, Iris Ann), these actors make an unimpressive, not very revealing impression.
Kennedy graduated from Ohio State in 1953, and the play is based, to some extent, on her experiences at the university. But no twins were born there, and no murders committed. In fact, the playwright married Joseph Kennedy on May 15, 1953, a month after graduation, and the couple had two sons.
But clearly, Kennedy has a few scores to settle. And, if nothing else, she certainly does that in Ohio State Murders. So that by the end of the play, we know two things: White people are shitty… and Audra McDonald can really memorize her lines.
Ohio State Murders runs until Feb. 12, 2023 at James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street.
Photography: Richard Termine