By Tulis McCall
I don’t read anything about a production before I see it. I want to have my reactions and thoughts untainted by other people’s ideas. After the show I start my research.
In this case, I thought I was going to see a play about the Kent State Shootings that happened in Ohio in 1970.
Ohio State Murders is not that story. Not one tiny bit.
This is a story executed in exquisite detail and delicacy that pierces you like a scalpel. It is the story of Suzanne Alexander, a student and unwed mother, caught in the racism of the 1950’s that ended in the death of her two twin daughters. I am giving nothing away here. She tells us this in the first few minutes of the play, and sprinkles the facts in throughout her narrative, often adding, “That was later.”
Suzanne has been invited to return to her Alma Mater – Ohio State – to give a lecture “The chairman said, we do want to hear about your brief years here at Ohio State but we also want you to talk about violent imagery in your stories and plays… Bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus.”
As Alexander takes us into and through her life she seems to be discovering it in a new way as she hears the words come out of her mouth. Ohio State was run by white folks, and the black folks were allowed to be there like a dog might be let in out of the rain. The white girls had sorority houses that looked like plantations up on the hill. The Black sororities were left to their own devices. The list goes on. Being laughed at. Accused of stealing jewelry. But the most egregious was the reality that “there were no ‘Negro’ students in the English Department. It was thought that we were not able to master the program.”
Denying Suzanne Alexander the right to pass through literature’s portal was like removing one of her lungs. For her literature was nectar. McDonald captures essence of Alexander’s devotion and profound understanding of literature over and over again. In one pivotal scene, as Professor Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) reads aloud from “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” McDonald nearly becomes invisible while at the same time allowing Alexander to be overcome as the reading concludes. You don’t see it happening until you do. A master class in magic.
In the partnership of Audra McDonald and Adrienne Kennedy (it is the latter’s Broadway Debut at the age of 91) there is a bond of trust. Kennedy has handed one of her offspring to McDonald who cherishes it. This is a multilayered iconic piece that is to be administered bit by bit. There is no rushing this tale of a woman betrayed by nearly everything in life, including her children’s murderer and even her husband who was trying to protect her.
This trail of tears and betrayal is the source of the violent imagery in her work. Kennedy and McDonald, aided by the guidance of Kenny Leon, deliver this shameful truth to us. We would do well to take it, linger over it, and fold it into the fabric that is our life. In the center of white Broadway (AKA The Great White Way – and not just because of the lights), at a theatre recently christened “The James Earl Jones Theatre (all the ushers make a point of saying, “Welcome to The Jones,” black voices are challenging us white folk to “not go gentle into that good night”.
I love New York. It is a great town. But let’s face it. New York is also a liberal, racist town. Truth.
Productions like these are a gift that keeps on giving. Productions like these MIGHT make us do more than listen and nod from the sidelines. One never knows, do one?
PS – best supporting SNOW. E-V-E-R.
OHIO STATE MURDERS by Adrienne Kennedy and directed by Kenny Leon.
WITH Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham, Mister Fitzgerald, Lizan Mitchell, and Abigail Stephenson.
The creative team for the production includes Beowulf Boritt (Set Design), Dede Ayite (Costume Design), Allen Lee Hughes (Lighting Design), Justin Ellington (Sound Design), Jeff Sugg (Projection Design), J. Jared Janas (Hair/Wig and Makeup Design), Dwight Andrews (Original Music), and Caparelliotis Casting (Casting).
Through February 12, 2023