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Ohio State Murders Review
Audra McDonald’s uncanny ability to transform herself into other characters – from the sassy Maine factory worker Carrie Pipperidge to the tragically unhappy singer Billie Holiday – has earned her a record-setting six Tony Awards and the devotion of fans for almost 30 years. So, it’s not surprising to say she’s done it again – and could easily earn her seventh Tony Award – with her performance in the Broadway premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s 70-minute quasi-monologue “The Ohio State Murders,” now at the newly renamed and refurbished James Earl Jones Theatre under Kenny Leon’s precise direction.

Nonetheless, watching McDonald seemingly shed 30 years of life experience to “become” 1940s college student Suzanne Alexander is still mind-blowing. In just seconds, McDonald completely inhabits the prim, proper, seemingly virginal Suzanne (beautifully costumed by Dede Ayite) – just moments after portraying the grown-up Suzanne who (like Kennedy) has become a celebrated writer known for her use of violent imagery. It’s a performance that, like so many of McDonald’s previous ones, brilliantly blends technique and talent in a way few actors can.

Moreover, unlike in the play’s previous New York productions, there is no actress visually standing in for the younger Suzanne, while the older Suzanne rather matter-of-factly relates the horrors of the sometimes casual, often deliberate racism she encountered while attending Ohio State University. Here, it’s McDonald doing all the work, physically and emotionally, while wandering around the bookcase-filed stage (by Beowulf Borrit) and navigating tricky emotional terrain.

Speaking in a flat, almost sing-songy voice (apparently patterned on Kennedy’s), Suzanne recalls such indignities as being shunned openly by the white girls in her dormitory to the refusal of the university’s English department to let her major in the subject. These recollections are disturbing, if not exactly shocking (given the time period); yet they’re made even more unsettling by the knowledge that they could still occur today.

Racism, in all its ugly forms, also plays a gruesome part in the murders – and the subsequent investigation -- that give the show its title. (I’d prefer not to give who is killed away, although Kennedy reveals the victim of the first murder– as well as its perpetrator – early in the work; the second one truly shocked much of my audience.)

Discussing these killings, echoes of today can be heard in the words Suzanne speaks, and McDonald’s ability to convey them with a barely controlled rage is perhaps the most impressive part of her performance. Then again, one truly fears what would happen if Suzanne let all her emotions burst forth.

As I mentioned, the piece is a quasi-monologue and I honestly think it would work better without the mostly visual presence of the other characters, including her English professor, loving aunt, college roommate and two suitors. It’s not just that the actors (Bryce Pinkham, Mister Fitzgerald, Abigail Stephenson and Lizan Mitchell, all good) don’t really add anything to the proceedings by being there in the flesh. It’s that by being there, scenes are sometimes reenacted that have already been narrated. The repetition is unnecessary, especially in a piece that, sadly, doesn’t always hold one’s attention.

And, let’s be honest, it’s impossible to look away from McDonald, even if society overlooked – and still overlooks – the Suzanne Alexanders of the world.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham, Lizan Mitchell, Mister Fitzgerald, Abigail Stephenson, Brett Diggs, Brooke Gardner, Christina Pedersen, Gayle Samuels

Open/Close Dates
Opening 12/8/2022
Closing 1/15/2023

Theatre Info
James Earl Jones Theatre
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036