OHIO STATE MURDERS
January 11, 2023
Descriptions of the Oval, library, High Street and dorms brought back vivid memories of my days on the OSU campus. By the time I arrived, however, the student population was much more diversified and politically active than in the 1950's, when just a handful of Black students were matriculated and living in segregated dorms. This kind of invisible racism infiltrates Adrienne Kennedy's girpping tragedy Ohio State Murders published in 1992.
Kennedy tenaciously reveals the countless strategies employed to physically and intellectually restrict Black students in the 1950's. When the curtain rises, a Black female guest speaker stands behind the podium. Suzanne Alexander (the remarkable Audra McDonald), now a successful author, returns to OSU to lecture on the use of violent imagery in her novels. In a series of flashbacks, Alexander attacks ghosts ravaging her student days at OSU.
The daughter of college educated parents, Alexander enters OSU with barely a notion of her future when Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles devastates her. A first year teacher, Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) calls her into his office and challenges the authorship of her paper. In short order, he recognizes her abundant literary gifts.
Determined to pursue American Literature, Suzanne is denied permission to declare this major because Blacks are considered intellectually incapable of mastering the course load. Instead, OSU directs her towards a teaching degree. Tragically, her immediate dreams are cut short when two nights spent with the cowardly Professor Hampshire produce an unwanted pregnancy.
Shrinking back from the news, Hampshire insists it's impossible to get pregnant after only 2 episodes only to become wildly paranoid about the ramifications of this affair on his budding career. McDonald gracefully shudders at the multiple offenses she, an industrious, cultured and obviously intelligent woman must endure.
After leaving OSU due to her pregnancy, Alexander joins her loving aunt in Harlem (an effective Lizan Mitchell) and gives birth to twins. But somehow, she can't leave OSU behind and returns to the scene of her disgrace. Director Kenny Leon perceptively directs this intimate, densely articulate chamber play contained by designer Justin Ellington's tilted metal bookshelves strewn across the stage.
Leon's approach replaces physical action with McDonald's operatic vocal and emotional range. Once back at OSU, Alexander falls in love with a Black law student David (Mister Fitzgerald); however, tragedy awaits. One day, she visits the doctor, and leaves one of the twins in the car. When she returns, the other baby is gone. Then we learn the unthinkable. Audra McDonald, who's acting chops now equal her vocal talents, commands the stage for an uninterrupted 75 minutes.
Entirely convincing, McDonald breathes life into dreams and aspirations blunted, but never buried, by racism and madness.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis