Any theatergoer worth their Playbill collection knows that if Audra McDonald is in a show, you refinance your home and get there. One of Broadway’s all-time queens (as well as a TV star, in The Good Fight), McDonald has won six Tony awards, spanning all four acting categories (i.e., both lead and featured performances in both plays and musicals). We’ve seen her as the spirited Carrie Pipperidge, cavorting and belting out songs in the 1994 Carousel revival; as the grounded wife Ruth Younger in 2004’s reinterpretation of the landmark Black domestic drama A Raisin in the Sun; and, more recently, as damaged but persevering women in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (2012) and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (2014). The latter was mostly music—it’s basically a dive-bar concert by a late-period Billie Holiday, complete with some verbal musings—but the Tony committee decided it was a straight play, no doubt persuaded by McDonald’s committed performance. She not only projected a dramatic arc within each song, she did so for the entire show as well, every note moving the jazz diva’s dissolution forward. Only McDonald could sing for 90 minutes, then win Best Actress in a Play.
The woman has flawless chops—she swore to me in a 2019 interview that she’s hardly perfect, though I’ve never seen her miss a note or a beat—but manages to meld her precision with a limpid realness and accessibility that give her polish a jolt.
Her latest showcase is Ohio State Murders, one of four Adrienne Kennedy plays published in 1992, all featuring the same character, author Suzanne Alexander. Kennedy started writing plays in the early 1960s, generally exploring the violence and alienation caused by racism. Much of her work dabbles in surrealism (as in 1964’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, which took place inside the mind of a mixed-race NYC woman and used historical figures such as Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg to discuss relevant issues, like obsessions with whiteness), whereas Ohio State Murders is more straightforward. This makes it more Broadway-ready—in addition to the fact that, under expectations to be more “woke,” Broadway has finally realized it can showcase way more works by Black artists than it has in the past.
And so, Ohio happens to be the now-91-year-old playwright’s first play to land on the Great Formerly White Way. And while the result won’t be remembered as one of McDonald’s towering achievements, it’s hardly without potency. In the play, Suzanne (McDonald) returns to her alma mater, Ohio State University (which Kennedy attended), to speak. She has been asked, specifically, to address why her work is rife with such violent imagery. (“Bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus” is how she describes it). My heart sank when I first thought the character was simply going to give a lecture, thereby telling the story of her college years, starting in 1949. That’s my least favorite type of play, since I’d much rather see something enacted than described. Fortunately, it turns out that the character doesn’t just recount her history; her narrations segue into flashback interactions with the other people in her life, most notably Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), a white professor who teaches the work of moralistic authors such as Thomas Hardy and who becomes impressed by Suzanne’s skill in intuiting that material.
But when she realizes that she’s one of very few African Americans on campus, Suzanne feels isolated—not invited to party with the white girls (who, we’re told, sing songs from Carousel—way before revivals had integrated casts) and hardly welcomed into the English department. (Says she, with a chill, “It was thought that we were not able to master the program”).
In reliving her college experience—“a series of disparate, dark landscapes,” she calls it—Suzanne focuses on her relationship with Hampshire, who, she says, seems smaller every time she sees him. (She means he was literally shrinking with age, but the implication—that he was becoming less imposing as a person—is obvious.) And of course she delves into the title deaths, which, just for starters, grotesquely enough involve the murder of one of the twins she’d given birth to. I won’t reveal any more details here; suffice it to say that deep-rooted racism is at the core, in its most grisly form. “And that is the main source of the violent imagery in my work. Thank you,” concludes the author, shaken.
In a video interview for Broadwayworld.com, McDonald aptly described this work as “a murder mystery, a memory play and a cautionary tale on the horrific lasting effects of systemic racism and trauma on a person.” In only 75 intermissionless minutes, Kennedy provides her main character with dialogue that captures a writer intent on basically giving a report (“I saw how uncomfortable he was, sitting on Mrs. Tyler’s stiff couch”). In speaking these words, McDonald adopts a sort of high-pitched, schoolmarmish voice that’s halting, as the memories erupt in fits and starts. At times, I felt her speech patterns came off too much like “Acting,” but as the horrors mount, her delivery pours out with increasing alarm. (“I knew whites had killed Negroes, although I had not witnessed it. Thoughts of secret white groups murdering singed the end of the mind.”)
Beowulf Boritt’s abstract set is composed of a labyrinth of hanging and standing bookcases, all positioned at weird angles. This comes off like the literary corridor into Suzanne’s worst nightmare—a “dark landscape” indeed.
As directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, with our star), McDonald is pretty much the whole show, and the result is the rare theater outing where I never heard a single cell phone ringing or even a cough. I wish I could say that the entire evening was substantial enough to deserve that kind of reverence, but as an unnerving glimpse into a dark time—and an update on the continuing legend of Audra—Ohio State Murders is still welcome on Broadway. The curtain call climaxes with McDonald, playing the author, pointing to a slide projection of the play’s actual author. Author, author! ❖
Michael Musto has written for the Voice since 1984, best known for his outspoken column “La Dolce Musto.” He has penned four books, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.