Looking Back in Anger
Iris Fanger talks to the actor and director of A.R.T.'s Ohio State Murders, Adrienne Kennedy's look back at life as black college student.
Kennedy hand-picked Denise Nicholas, the well-known television actress who played opposite Carroll O'Connor for five years on In the Heat of the Night, to play the role of the older Suzanne Alexander, a stand-in for the playwright. After years of acting on television, Nicholas decided to return to the theater because of Kennedy's invitation. "It was a rare thing," Nicholas says. "I don't know Adrienne Kennedy. She sent a letter to my agent, asking me to consider coming here to do it. So I read it, thought about it, and then I thought, maybe it was time to do something different," Nicholas says.
Kennedy's play, written in 1991, is based on her experiences as a black student at Ohio State in the late 1940s. There were only 300 blacks on campus among the 27,000 white students, with a color line clearly drawn between their worlds. In the play, the freshman Suzanne has an affair with her white professor, becomes pregnant with twins, and is abandoned by her lover. Later, after the children are born, there is a terrible outcome, based on the guilt of the father.
Marcus Stern, who is directing the show, says, "I don't know the extent to which the play is true--about the affair, the children, or the murder. Adrienne has talked about being at Ohio State, what it was like there. She still has the anger so many years later. I'm taking that deeply-imbedded anger and vulnerability as one of the cornerstones of directing this play."
As a student at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s, Nicholas had a different exposure. "Certainly, in Ann Arbor in the '60s, there were not many black students. I don't think there are many now," Nicholas says. "There was a certain feeling of isolation, for sure. However, there was a political atmosphere. You had a voice. There were speakers coming from the South talking about the civil rights movement. There were the beginnings of the women's movement, so there was a counterbalance to the alienation," she says.
At Ohio State, Kennedy had to deal with white girls in the dorm who did not speak to her, an English department that was closed to black students after the freshman-year courses, and a defined campus geography that restricted the movement of the blacks. While Nicholas felt safe in Ann Arbor, her life took a different turn when she left college after two years to join the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi. "I was there the summer of 1964 when the young men from the North were killed. We worked with SNCC, touring to towns that had a voter registration project. We toured 17 teeny-tiny towns all over Mississippi. We were always threatened; we were under a lot of stress all the time," she remembers. Nicholas, who remained with the theater for two years before leaving for New York and later Hollywood, is writing a novel about her first summer in Mississippi.
Kennedy's earlier plays, from Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) to the cycle called The Alexander Plays (1992) deal with issues of racism in the United States, however, she usually writes in surrealistic style, with snatches of dreams, fantastic characters, and violence threading the action. The Signature Theater in New York devoted its 1995-96 season to producing her plays. The Ohio State Murdersis her most naturalistic play, according to Stern, despite the figure of the narrator and the sequence of flash-backs." Part of what's tricky is not reiterating in staging what's being said in the narration," he says.