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  • Jonathan Kalb

Star Turns

So it’s finally come to pass. Ninety-one-year-old Adrienne Kennedy, whom many consider America’s greatest living playwright and perhaps its greatest Black playwright ever, has arrived on Broadway. The work that got her there is Ohio State Murders, unquestionably her most accessible drama. No question that this author’s plays are demanding. They’re constructed like history- and literature-haunted nightmares, dense with layers of personal memory, found imagery and quoted text gathered around identity-splintered protagonists. For those who follow them closely, there are thrills, terrors and astonishments galore, and plenty of wisdom. Ohio State Murders, for all its multi-layered Kennedyesque complexity, is a nail-biting murder mystery and a searing confrontation with structural racism.

Long revered in academia and honored by younger playwrights, Kennedy has never been a producers’ darling. She was mentored early on by Edward Albee and had some initial success with her Obie-winning Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), but after that she was pretty much ignored or produced obscurely by white-run theaters, until being “discovered” again in old age by Signature Theatre and Theatre for a New Audience. Interestingly enough, she has lacked consistent Black support too. Black luminaries like Amiri Baraka and the critics Martin Duberman and Seymour Rudin dismissed her work in the 60s as too fantastical, female, personal, and bourgeois to serve the liberatory goals of the Black Arts Movement.

It's a miracle—and a testimony to her indestructibility—that she persisted. The next time you find yourself carping about academia, spare a thought for the sustaining love and oxygen it offered this brilliant artist.

Ohio State Murders is set in the titular university where both Kennedy and her fictional alter-ego Suzanne Alexander attended from 1949-51. Suzanne, now a successful author, has been invited back “to talk about the violent imagery in my work; bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus.” We meet her rehearsing her talk in the deserted basement level of the college library, and watch as the speech expands into a harrowing drama of humiliation, ostracism, and violence enacted by herself and others.

Two stories intertwine: Suzanne as a student remembered by Suzanne as a prominent professional. Student Suzanne endures appalling racism sanctioned by the school—white students suspect Blacks of petty crimes on no evidence, the headmistress raids Suzanne’s room and reads her notebooks and diary, no Blacks are considered capable of completing the English major—but she retains her new-fired love of literature.

Unfortunately (spoiler alert!), her hopes come crashing down after an English professor named Hampshire, who she thought admired her, impregnates her and she is expelled. It gets even worse. Maddened by her refusal to disappear—like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, whose story is used as a parallel—Hampshire stalks her and murders her twin daughters. Suzanne’s plan (we never see her public lecture) is to reveal all this publicly for the first time, the university, the families, and the police having covered up the facts. She closes by saying: “And that is the main source of the violent imagery in my work. Thank you”—possibly still alone, rehearsing in the library.

Kenny Leon’s production at the recently re-christened James Earl Jones Theatre (the gorgeously renovated former Cort) is first and foremost a showcase for its star Audra McDonald. And what a star turn it is, even though Kennedy didn’t conceive the play that way. Because it’s constructed as a series of fractured flashbacks in a private setting, the play pointedly de-emphasizes all demonstrative behavior. In fact, the younger Suzanne—Kennedy calls for separate actors to play the mature writer and the innocent college student—is described as increasingly withdrawn and silent as the action goes on. In all other productions I know of, the horrifying events themselves carried the burden of emotion, because the flashbacks are all brief, subdued, and dense with literary quotation. Older Suzanne maintains an icy factuality and journalistic detachment while narrating.

Leon’s innovation is to have McDonald play both Suzannes and, with extremely emotional, sensitively nuanced acting, become the heroic agent of the character’s spiritual rebirth. The set has been designed by Beowulf Boritt as a maximalist bombing scene, with pieces of bookshelf crazily flying in every direction and a shattered rear wall framing constant snowfall between giant cracks. McDonald’s Suzanne is the bomb. On this sensationalized stage she is magnificently expansive, conveying not only every phase of younger Suzanne’s pain from all the play’s degrading and violent incidents but also, just as specifically and convincingly, all the cumulative pain that had lodged in older Suzanne. It is a melodramatic tour de force that melts the play’s psychic ice by the end and leaves no one in the audience dry-eyed.

It must be said that, arresting and impressive as this approach is, it’s not what the author originally called for. It’s a clever and fanciful solution to the problem of staging a chamber piece in a venue far larger than those where Kennedy usually appears. The occasion obviously calls for broader effects than the script offers to keep the play from shrinking and shriveling. I admit that I was skeptical at first about all this, particularly about the unmitigated explicitation in McDonald's emotional expression. She won me over in the end, though, because her performance was never once false or forced. It’s downright thrilling to see her stretching her wings, and to see the play honored by such a big commercial gamble.

The advantages of the original approach were on fine display back in 2007 in Evan Yionoulis’s production at the off-Broadway Duke on 42nd St., starring Lisa Gay Hamilton as older Suzanne and Cherise Booth as the younger one. (This was a Theatre for a New Audience production done before I started working there.) The Duke’s shallow stage could accommodate only modest theatrical effects other than projections, but the show never seemed skimpy to me because its theatrical modesty rightly concentrated attention on words. Words—particularly the kind that repay close listening by opening up vast parallel landscapes and startling comparative ideas—are what both Kennedy and Suzanne care most about. The truth is that, in a house as large as the James Earl Jones, that kind of concentration can be difficult if not impossible.

It’s worth remembering that Ohio State Murders contains a severe institutional critique along with its astonishing personal survival tale. The unacknowledged racism depicted at Ohio State more than 70 years ago really ought to move us to reflect on all such systems that continue to deprive gifted African-Americans of options and agency. Giving Adrienne Kennedy a long-belated Broadway run is a start. Let’s hope it’s not the end of a newly energized public engagement with her.

Photos: Richard Termine, 2022

Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy directed by Kenny Leon James Earl Jones Theatre

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