Theater archives

Anxiety 101


Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, a 1992 work now receiving its Off-Broadway premiere, opens in an underground corner of the college library. Far above, through arched windows, snow veils the roofs of stately buildings. Shelves of books ring a small desk. The spine of each book, even Roots, has been whitewashed. Into this blanched landscape steps Suzanne Alexander (Lisa Gay Hamilton in an extraordinary performance), an African-American alumna dressed in a black jacket and skirt and a deep red blouse. Her very presence, her very color, disorders her surroundings. Quietly, with enviable composure, she says, “I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work. The bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead fathers, dead Nazis, dying Jesus.”

Suzanne’s words shock—introducing gore into such a chaste little room. But she abruptly abandons heads, limbs, and fathers, and recounts, digressively, her college-age memories. As a younger Suzanne and assorted roommates, beaus, and relations appear around her, Hamilton recalls the campus layout. “The oval, behind the green, the golf hut, behind Zoology, the tennis courts…. The geography made me anxious,” she says. It makes the audience anxious, too. With each deviation from her subject, we remain alert, wondering when these casual reminiscences will devolve into carnage. (The title, and some trepidation in Suzanne’s tone, suggests brutality is never far away.) At first, Suzanne mentions violence of only the politest sort—the whispering white girls, the dismissive professors, the department secretary who says, “I didn’t know there were no Negro students in the English Department.” Like Suzanne, Kennedy attended Ohio State in 1949. Many of these experiences seem drawn for her biography. In an interview some years ago Kennedy said, “I felt that Ohio State hated me and was trying to destroy me.”

Apparently what doesn’t kill you can make for remarkable art. During this hour-long piece, Kennedy and director Evan Yionoulis create an extraordinary sense of place and air of fear, even as the younger Suzanne converses with a roommate or reads from Thomas Hardy. Occasionally, Suzanne will jump ahead of herself, referencing a more ghastly part of her story. Then she will pause, smile slightly, and say, “That was later.” The events of “later” include twins born out of wedlock, a double murder, a suicide, a marriage, and a cover-up. Kennedy is a writer of economy and reserve; nearly all of these events happen elsewhere, in the wings. Suzanne never details any of the gory events, merely stating the bare facts, though as the play progresses Hamilton allows more emotion to bleed through. Eventually her narrative reaches a terrible climax, but Kennedy doesn’t permit Suzanne any catharsis or relief, merely the clipped, “And that is the main source of violent imagery in my work.”