Audra McDonald in shocking ‘Ohio State Murders’ on Broadway

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NEW YORK — Imagine you’re a celebrity writer invited to speak by your alma mater, where you had a mostly miserable time, thanks to the racism of the time and place. Imagine further that the person inviting you asks you to talk about why you have so much violent imagery in your creative work.

So you decide to tell him why. In a play that Ohio State’s public relations department likely will not see as an asset for the university.

Audra McDonald looks like the star of the new Broadway show at the James Earl Jones Theatre in New York but, by design, everything in director Kenny Leon’s production, which opened Thursday night, is designed to focus on the playwright: Adrienne Kennedy, a 91-year-old Black playwright who, back in 1992, told it like it was in “Ohio State Murders.”

I should note two things before I go any further. Firstly, I was a doctoral student at Ohio State when Kennedy was asked to come speak to my theater department, an invitation that sparked the very play I now find myself reviewing. I recall meeting her back then. I recall a good deal that led to this play

In the 1980s, I lived on the Columbus, Ohio, streets where “Ohio State Murders” is set, albeit some decades earlier. I have reviewed “Ohio State Murders” before, at its world premiere at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland in 1992, where it starred Ruby Dee and set me right on a few things I’d failed to understand as a young person at a great state university.

Here is the premise of this short, sharp shock of a play.

A Black woman, a Kennedy alter-ego named Suzanne inhabited by McDonald (who speaks almost non-stop for the whole 75 minutes) is looking back on her college years at Ohio State. Racism abounds. Suzanne lives in segregated rooms with her roommate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson). The young women are excluded from residential Greek life and limited in choice of major, notwithstanding Suzanne’s clear talent. Specifically, she is interested in the English department and her ability attracts the attention of an intellectual young lecturer, played by Bryce Pinkham.

A happier story would have a white mentor taking an interest in a woman who is young, gifted and Black, paving her way. But that is not what happens here. The lecturer, Robert Hampshire, turns out to be as weak as he is pathetic. In Suzanne, he sees not a chance to make a difference but to have an affair that leaves her pregnant with twins for whom both he (and his university) refuse to take any responsibility whatsoever.

Precisely what happens next is best not known by anyone seeing this play. Suffice to say that Suzanne is buffeted by these events and uncaring parents, finding a loving aunt (played by Lizan Mitchell) as a safe harbor and, in time, a more kindly male, played by Mister Fitzgerald.

McDonald’s performance is immersive, to say the least, as she probes what is, at its core, a memory monologue, not unlike Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside,” which was recently on Broadway. Her lending her celebrity to the role is both presented here as an act of generosity to a playwright long overlooked by Broadway, and entirely viable as such. You believe her as this idealistic college woman, progressively shattered by what she finds as an unwelcome Buckeye. For those of us fond of Ohio State, or indeed public higher education in general, it is a very sad piece.

Leon’s production focuses a bit too much on memory and not enough on the imagined present, to my mind. The tension that Kennedy built into the piece would be more palpable if, for a second, we believe that Hampshire will be good for Suzanne, but the conclusions here always appear foregone. If Pinkham softened his character some in the early stages of the piece, that would help bring about the twisting agony of disappointed expectations.

But McDonald, clearly laboring out of love here, is just wonderful in this part. On Beowulf Boritt’s fractured, dislocated set, she shares her final bow with an image of Kennedy, a prescient writer, perhaps born too soon in America but still having flourished, notwithstanding all that her now regretful university put in her way.

At the James Earl Jones Theater, 138 W. 48th St., New York; ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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