“Ohio State Murders” a potboiler with literary twist about a 1950s racial killing

By Lucy Komisar

Audra McDonald as Suzanne Alexander at the university law library, photo Richard Termine.

A novella is not a play. The 75-minute drama by Adrienne Kennedy is largely a monologue, delivered expertly by Audra McDonald, but still a monologue. It was first produced thirty years ago, but this is the first time it’s been on Broadway.

Kennedy built on the setting of Ohio State University in Columbus, which she attended in the 1950s. Famous writer Suzanne Alexander (Audra McDonald) is giving a lecture about her time there. She talks about nasty co-eds who excluded blacks from their society and an English department that barred them. But as that is not quite dramatic enough for a play, and perhaps for its symbolism, she invents the murders of her main character’s daughters, one as an infant, the other at 2 years old. The backdrop is a library of lawbooks. they could signify the irony of failed justice.

The only clues are that Suzanne had a brief affair with a sensitive English professor, Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), who is teaching “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” It’s a steamy 19th-century novel by Thomas Hardy that features seduction, pregnancy, and murder. That isn’t explained in the plot; the erudite audience is supposed to know.

Audra McDonald as Suzanne Alexander, Bryce Pinkham as Robert Hampshire, photo Richard Termine.

The professor tells her that her essays are brilliant. Sometime later, when she tells him she is pregnant, he says it isn’t possible. They had been together only a few times.

Her father, a minister, sends her to New York to stay with her sister. She has twins. Then she settles in a boarding house in Columbus where she works as a stockgirl.

Susanne recalls seeing the film “Battleship Potemkin” and being drawn to the storming of the Winter Palace. And there was a mutiny on the battleship. I couldn’t figure the connection.

One day when she briefly leaves a daughter in the car, the infant is seized, killed and thrown into a campus ravine. Apparently, law enforcement authorities either can’t or won’t find the trail of the killer. A few years, later, the predator murders the other daughter and himself. It’s a racial killing. The evidence is clear. Too late.

Audra McDonald as Suzanne Alexander, Lizan Mitchell as Aunt Louise and Mister Fitzgerald as Val, photo Richard Termine.

Characters who make fleeting appearances to fill out the story are a fellow classmate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson), her Aunt Louise (Lizan Mitchell), and her brother David and a local black youth, Val (Mister Fitzgerald).

A drama about real life at the university in the 50s might have been harder to create. A murder mystery is easy symbolism. But it’s essentially unsatisfying. Even tedious. The way whites treated blacks at Ohio State can be documented. Adding a murder mystery shifts the focus. Susanne tells students in this long lecture that this is the major source of the violent imagery in her writing. It’s a potboiler and makes one uninterested in this author’s work.

Ohio State Murders. Written by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, NYC. Runtime 75min.  Opened Dec 8, 2022, closes Feb 12, 2023. Review on NY Theatre-Wire. https://nytheatre-wire.com/lk22126t.htm

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