Ohio State Murders review – Audra McDonald soars in an unsteady mystery

Ohio State Murders is a meditation on violence. Violence as in murder. Violence as in racism. Violence committed against Black people that is swiftly buried. The Broadway debut of 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy captures these realities with its vivid language and world building. But Ohio State Murders stumbles given its concealed retelling.

Related: Ain’t No Mo review – absurdist and uneven satire about race in America

In Kennedy’s non-linear work, Suzanne Alexander (Audra McDonald) is a Black former student of Ohio State University who recalls the murder of her infant daughter while giving a speech at the college. Once a budding scholar in the school’s English department, Alexander’s brief entanglement with white English professor Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham) produces twin daughters. Alexander is later expelled, separated from fellow friend Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson) and her children’s father.

Though dismissed and living with an out of state aunt (Lizan Mitchell), she remains in orbit with the institution. Alexander falls in love with law student David (Mister Fitzgerald) and often attends lectures given by Hampshire. She is later tethered to the college town to learn who killed her daughter and through an additional subsequent tragedy.

Kennedy beautifully constructs the intense isolation and glass ceilings that Alexander faces at Ohio State in the 1950s. The white girls don’t speak to her. She is assumed to be too incompetent for the school’s English major, despite a clear mastery of the material. Almost every moment of her collegiate experience is turned sour given the racist indignation she suffers.

Potent imagery is central to Kennedy’s writing. It’s showcased in her sinister descriptions of Ohio State’s geography, including a map of de facto segregation that limits where Black students walk. It’s included with her blunt descriptions interwoven through Alexander’s speech, including an apt description of the murder weapon used to kill Alexander’s child (“a knife he had taken out of the kitchen sink”).

With Kenny Leon’s direction, Alexander’s recollections are rarely muddled. Innovative lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes means the story’s weaving timelines remain clear as Alexander moves through the present time of her speech and the past of her memory. Kennedy further teases us along with reminders that Alexander’s remembrances will be expanded on later. But as a piece, Ohio State Murders lacks a higher calling.

Ohio State Murders works best as a reflection of Alexander’s emotional experience, not as a “whodunnit” about her daughter’s murder. The murderer central to the play is named halfway through. With such suspense slackened, the focus should be on Alexander’s emotional experience and thinking.

A searing critique of university-level racism complements Alexander’s divulgences well but is too diluted with Alexander’s personal tale to be the work’s main draw. There is a lack of secrets in Ohio State Murders, as Alexander’s public speech gives us little insight into her inner monologue.

The play, told in a narrative reconstruction, is Alexander retelling her personal traumas. But Kennedy’s tale of woe rarely moves beyond the outfacing recollections. Alexander does so much to conceal the yawning depth of her grief and anger given the public presentation of her speech. She uses giggles, hand-wringing and other tics to smother her pain. But a new understanding of how Alexander feels, especially given the passage of time, is missing.

While she captures some agency in telling her story, the stakes of the speech aren’t high enough to justify a remembrance without more inner divulgence. We never learn what attracted her to Hampshire in the first place. A real reason for her intermittent return to Ohio (before her daughter’s murder) is also absent. We learn more about Hampshire’s worries his fears that impregnating Alexander would ruin him then Alexander’s reality. Her recollection lacks the extra edge of vulnerability, the things that she will only admit to herself.

McDonald is sublime, occupying the emotional state of Alexander’s present and past with no effort. McDonald’s body literally vibrates with rage at memories of her bullish classmates or her murdered child. McDonald is tender and loving with the pink scarves meant to represent her children. But, despite her immense talents, even McDonald’s recreations of grief have a ceiling without new revelations about Alexander’s inner state.

Pinkham is talented as the dead-eyed, cold Hampshire. But, with Leon’s direction, Pinkham never demonstrates a reason as to why a vulnerable Alexander would be drawn to him. Kennedy’s work is an acute visitation of a fictionalized past. It is an opportunity to dig into the ways that this Black woman has suffered, interpersonally and institutionally.

But by allowing Alexander’s revealings only to be those in the public eye, a chance to truly understand such a dismissed character is forsaken.