January 31, 2023

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‘Ohio State Murders’ Review: Audra McDonald Stance in Broadway Play

3 min read

It might be easy to take for granted that Audra MacDonald, with six Tony Awards to her name, is capable of performances that subtly crawl into your mind and flutter around like a bat cleaning out its dark recesses. A meticulous cartographer of heart and mind, he paints the innermost images of people who previously felt unknown, or, in the case of “Ohio State Murders,” which opened on Broadway Thursday night, unimaginable before bringing them to life.

It made a kindred and heavenly pairing of her and playwright Adrienne Kennedy, making her Broadway debut at the age of 91 at the eponymous James Earl Jones Theatre. Kennedy’s act is a major clash of memory with the trauma caused by apartheid violence that may partially explain the delay. Audiences today are more willing to see such facial ugliness than in 1991, when the play was presented off-Broadway at the Yale Repertory Theatre, or even in 2007.

But it’s not just about “Ohio State Murders,” directed here by Kenny Leone (“Topdog/Underdog”), which demands the kind of intellectual and emotional engagement that distinguishes theater from more passive mediums. Kennedy’s formal technique—the density of his lyricism, the selectivity with which he chooses to reveal or withhold—is an engine of uncertainty, luring listeners into a slippery sort of abyss. It is an aesthetic reflection of its narrator’s fraught and unimaginable history.

Suzanne Alexander, a prolific writer, returned to her alma mater in the early 1990s, where she was asked to talk about the violent imagery in her work – “bloody heads, dismembered limbs, dead fathers, dead Nazis” – whose origins go back some 40 She was the victim of a heinous crime years ago, when she was one of the few black female students there. His memoir is rich in particular details, such as the layout of campus buildings and literary passages he remembers, a lecturer reading in his first year (Bryce Pinkham) about a woman from Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. The one who is raped, is punished for his impurity and finally consumed by vengeance.

“The Ohio State Murders” is not a mystery, nor is it structured around the conventions of suspense — the crimes are in the headlines, and revelations about its victims and perpetrators occur almost incidentally. While these moments are not without their chills of revelation, Kennedy’s brilliance lies in the complexity of his character portraits, in explaining and portraying the way pain and loss in mind and body are conveyed. The trials Suzanne endures shape how she intersects and expresses herself to the world beyond the isolation of the pain they cause. So bloody heads and severed limbs.

“Geography makes me anxious,” Suzanne says, as if mapping her relationship to fixed landmarks only reinforces her own sense of displacement. MacDonald is restless, at times trembling, as she describes Suzanne’s time at Ohio State, a fragility that vibrates under the restraint of an artist who channels the tenacity of survival into her work. With a drawn-out intonation and a soaring, almost regal cadence, MacDonald describes how Suzanne would twirl her curlers so hard that her scalp would bleed, and felt paranoid hearing white-girl giggles echoing through the halls of her dorm (haunting sound). Designed by Justin Ellington). MacDonald is both attentive to every serious detail of the narrative and yet somehow holds Suzanne in a subtle remove, a hypnotic tug-of-war between vulnerability and verve.

MacDonald is also playing a dual role — playing both present-day and college-era Suzanne, whereas previous productions cast two actors. It’s another means of showing how decades-old wounds can feel fresh and reverberate throughout their lives, while taking full advantage of MacDonald’s versatility.

Leone’s production is a bold, and unequivocal, visual presentation of Kennedy’s argument for literature and imagination as both evidence of human fear and an essential escape from it. Beowulf Borritt’s set design, a hanging cascade of bookshelves, sharply lit by Allen Lee Hughes, might be on the nose if it weren’t so dazzlingly beautiful.

By any obvious measure, Kennedy’s arrival on Broadway in the ninth decade is long over. Commercial theater has not typically been the most fertile ground for bold, confrontational work that spotlights the voices and experiences of the most marginalized people. But when an exception takes root, a group of artists as visionary as this one, it’s definitely worth the wait.

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