For the 75-minute duration of Adrienne Kennedy’s stunning play Ohio State Murders (James Earl Jones Theatre, booking to Feb 12, 2023), Suzanne Hamilton’s (Audra McDonald) voice is its own story even as it tells a story. McDonald’s truly mesmerizing performance holds so much emotion, so many cadences, and is also a barely suppressed scream. Suzanne’s voice quivers with fury alongside a determined strength, as she reveals how her younger self was horribly violated.
We hear the pained grit in her voice, as she digs through layers of tragedy and injustice. McDonald animates Suzanne’s voice with flickers of upset, fury, the scars and knowledge of harsh injustice, grief, cruelty, and prejudice. Yet her determination to speak is the battering ram through all she has endured. Our audience sat watching McDonald, a six-time Tony Award winner, in engrossed, outraged, moved silence.
Racism, and its vicious and insidious, all-encompassing practice, is the fulcrum of this shattering play—Kennedy’s “historic and long overdue” Broadway debut at 91, as McDonald says in her Playbill bio—directed with a compact, precise power by Kenny Leon.
Suzanne, now an author, is addressing an audience in the early 1990s about events of 40 years earlier, when in the early 1950s she was one of a small group of Black students at Ohio State University. Now a famous author, she is there again to talk about her use of violent imagery. In 1949-50, she was studying English literature; she loved it. She mulled Hardy’s old Wessex place names and reveled in the gentle, geeky fervor of her professor Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), all tweeds and ruffled hair. But his classroom gentility is a flimsy mask for psychopathic, murderous white arrogance.
On stage in front of us is a stunning, meaningful design. Beowulf Boritt has constructed a frozen, tumbling cascade of shelved books, speaking to the learning and libraries, the atmosphere of academia—from its stone buildings to its labyrinthine buildings of learning—that first intrigue Suzanne. As well as a frozen garland framing the stage, they are embedded in it, forming seats and areas where characters can perch.
And then, resembling a floor-to-ceiling crack in the middle of the stage, we see a ravine, a slash of a V—where, Suzanne tells us at the outset, one of her twin daughters was murdered. In the space created by the slash, snow falls at different velocities. Sometimes it is light, sometimes it is heavy, but it falls constantly. Allen Lee Hughes’ effective lighting illuminates the fluttering blizzard and McDonald in stark brightness and softer yellows as we switch between present-day and past.
The production is almost-but-not-quite a monologue. Other characters orbit around Suzanne—Lizan Mitchell as Suzanne’s kindly Aunt Louise and two other characters, and Mister Fitzgerald as the lovely lawyer David who comes into Suzanne’s life, and who she will eventually marry, both becoming authors. We hear scattered words from the other characters, but Suzanne is our narrator and guide through history, setting up scenes within scenes, and moving the action forward via her own narration.
That abyss is symbolic as well as all too horribly literal; the text, at a key moment, defines the word—a concerto of meanings around lack and emptiness, a negative gap into which terrible things are lost and swallowed.
In the play, even before the murders happen, we see the racism that Suzanne and best friend Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson) lived through—it is the bedrock of the violence of all kinds in the play. The two young women are not able to live in the same accommodations as their white sorority sisters, or eat dinner at the same table (those same white sorority sisters laugh and mock and belittle them).
Suzanne is denied the chance to be an English major. She is a brilliant student, but her brilliance is overlooked by Hampshire and others. We begin to see how the routes of opportunity that should be Suzanne’s are instead being closed off. Today, in retrospect, she with that rightly angry voice recognizes this too. Suzanne writes an essay on loneliness and race at Ohio State, likening her experience to Tess’ life at the Vale of Blackmoor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. She is kicked out of the dorm when it is discovered that she is pregnant.
We learn of the murders of her children, Carol and Cathi, early on, and we learn who the killer is, and then we learn the killer’s actual identity was not publicly known for a long time—the play is a series of ever more horrific reveals.
One of the most beautiful ideas is to represent the two babies as two pink shawls. In tender moments, McDonald as Suzanne plays with those shawls and burbles at them as if playing with infants. We feel their innocence and purity; we see her determination to build a life for them. The murders are not only vile in themselves; they are not investigated properly. Suzanne is not treated properly in the investigation. All the time, she tries to find out the truth, despite the snickering of the hideous white sorority girls, despite every institutional force around her being dead-set against her.
What Kennedy, and McDonald through Kennedy, show all too clearly is that the murders themselves were carried out by a white madman who felt able to do so, and just as able to get away with it. He knew he could act with impunity because of the color of the children’s skin, the color of their mother’s skin, and the color of his skin and the privilege it bought him. How the deaths are misreported, mistold, and mischaracterized is the most egregious—but also yet another—example of the racism of the time; the racism of all times.
Everything that happens around the murders is about hiding and obscuring the truth of who did it, and what happened—and, by extension, maintaining white supremacy and white privilege. And he is only the most grotesque totem in the landscape of racism the play sketches. Look at the abyss in front of you, the tumbling books: a love of learning, a brilliant mind, strength and tenderness—all may be no match for an insidious crack that runs so deep.
And yet that also isn’t the end, because in Suzanne’s testimony the truth is finally told. She is not bearing witness, but rather indicting the individual and institutions that abused and sought to silence her, and who literally oversaw the murder of her children. This is not a cri de coeur, it is a long overdue truth-telling. At the end, Suzanne says it is also for her dead children. It will not bring them back, and it will not bring justice. But finally, history and truth have been heard. That, tragically, will have to be enough.