Many a long time after her good and unsettling performs grew to become seen Off Broadway, at regional theaters or, generally, in no way, the nice playwright Adrienne Kennedy is making her Broadway debut tonight when her 1992 work Ohio State Murders opens because the inaugural manufacturing on the newly renamed James Earl Jones Theatre.
In a current interview with The New York Times, the acclaimed 91-year-old Kennedy was blunt about why Broadway took so lengthy: “It’s because I’m a Black woman,” she stated, and one want look no additional than Broadway’s different criminally late embrace – of Alice Childress and her great 1955 play Trouble In Mind, which lastly acquired an distinctive Broadway staging final year – to acknowledge the reality of the assertion.
So the choice to carry Adrienne Kennedy to Broadway – or, maybe extra precisely, to carry Broadway to Adrienne Kennedy – is worthy of reward earlier than a lot as a single syllable is uttered on stage. Adrienne Kennedy is on Broadway.
For the event, the producers behind the present have assembled a tremendous staff of inventive expertise, from director Kenny Leon, among the best administrators engaged on Broadway proper now – see his Topdog/Underdog for the slamdunk proof – to star Audra McDonald, whose abilities on each the musical and non-musical stage are amongst Broadway’s most cherished.
Unfortunately, like nervous mother and father giving their youngsters a bit extra consideration than they may want, Ohio State Murders in a manufacturing that’s generally simply a lot for its personal good, portentous when it needn’t be, with a here-and-there vibe of being overcooked when pared-down simplicity is likely to be known as for.
The story itself wants no assist grabbing our consideration: A fictional story set on the segregated campus of Ohio State University within the late Forties-early Fifties – Kennedy attended the college then, and her use of element, from campus geography, the dorm-life racism, the day-in-day-out bias and outright hate skilled by college students of shade – turns Ohio State Murders into one thing of a time machine, a portal again to a life and period made vivid by a author’s phrases.
McDonald performs author Suzanne Alexander, who, within the early Nineties, returns to her alma mater as a visitor speaker discussing the violent imagery in her fiction. In the lecture-within-the-play, Alexander recounts her expertise as a scholar at Ohio State a long time earlier than, reminiscences that embody youthful hope and mental curiosity in addition to early encounters with racism and loneliness.
The story turns darker, a lot darker, when younger Suzanne turns into pregnant by a white professor, and later when the horrific incidents that give the play its title arrive to devastating impression, each on Alexander and on these of us listening to her story.
Despite the bigger implications of Suzanne’s story – the murders and the lengthy public silence that adopted them might be traced on to racism and bigotry on ranges each personal and institutional – the story is a fragile one, its telling maybe greatest undertaken in an intimate ambiance and with as little melodrama and foreshadowing because the teller can muster.
And right here is the place Ohio State Murders underwhelms. McDonald, far and away certainly one of Broadway’s biggest performers, brings such appreciable emotional weight – and expectation – to the stage that Ohio State Murders feels loaded with portent from the get-go. The set, designed by the at all times impressed Beowulf Boritt, is dominated by bookcases hanging, tilted, in mid-air and planted like toppled gravestones on the bottom, whereas Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting design literalizes the shadows of reminiscence right into a gothic and gloomy visible assertion.
McDonald has an influence that goes a good distance in supplying the intestine punches required, regardless of a efficiency – and a manufacturing – that leans closely on the ominous and steers the viewers to assumptions and predictions that may higher be developed as surprises. In supporting roles, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) is sufficiently creepy because the unhinged professor, and each Abigail Stephenson (as Suzanne’s school roommate) and Lizan Mitchell (in a number of roles) impress of their restricted occasions on stage (as does Mister Fitzgerald as two of Suzanne’s very totally different suitors).
Unlike earlier stagings of the play, Off Broadway and elsewhere, the Broadway manufacturing options McDonald as each the youthful and older variations of Suzanne, and right here the actor is a marvel, conveying a scholar’s pleasure with a heady new world that she’ll quickly be taught doesn’t need her, and as an achieved writer whose success can’t outrun her grief. It’s within the portrayal of these contrasts that McDonald finds one thing near perfection in a flawed manufacturing.