Decades after attending Ohio State University, successful African American author Suzanne Alexander is asked by her alma mater to come give a talk about the violent imagery in her stories. In Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders — currently receiving a mesmerizing revival from Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street — Suzanne spins a disturbing tale of discrimination, scandal, and murder that answers that request in a way that may make the school regret it ever asked it.
As Suzanne (LisaGay Hamilton) reminisces, key figures from her past wander onto the stage. These include her younger self (portrayed by Cherise Boothe), one of her professors, Robert Hampshire (Saxon Palmer), her best friend Iris Ann (Julia Pace Mitchell), her aunt Louise (Aleta Mitchell), and her eventual husband David Alexander (Kobi Libii). Although Suzanne narrates the bulk of the play directly to the audience, the other players occasionally engage in dialogue with one another. Even in their silences, though, their presence is palpably felt, haunting Suzanne’s story and enriching its resonance.
Suzanne attended Ohio State from 1949 to 1951, but did not graduate. She was not even able to become an English major like she wished. The racial discrimination that she faced is interwoven into the fabric of her tale, even if it is not necessarily the focus. Her speech in the present day does not come across as a vindictive indictment of the school — even if that critique is certainly there — but rather, as an unburdening of a story that she feels she needs to finally tell.
Although the narrative has a generally forward progression, Suzanne sometimes gets ahead of herself, foreshadowing events to come and stating, “but that was later.” She also breaks the chronology to go backwards in time, filling in certain details that she initially passed over, but which are now necessary for the story to continue. This is an extremely effective strategy on the playwright’s part, teasing the audience with choice details, such as the identity of the killer who committed the murders of the play’s title, long before the story reaches its end. That information won’t be shared in this review, but needless to say Suzanne knew the culprit, and the victims in the murders were also quite close to her.
Hamilton speaks with a preternatural calm, and yet there is a sense of a powerful emotional undercurrent to her words. As the story grows more and more tragic and personal, the actress allows some of those feelings to bubble to the surface. Towards the end of her tale, her voice cracks in an intense yet restrained moment, as Suzanne acknowledges the pain and horror of these events, which for the longest time have gone unspoken.
Boothe also does exceptional work, demonstrating how Suzanne’s bright-eyed eagerness to learn is eventually worn away by her experiences, giving her a more haggard demeanor. Palmer’s appearance also undergoes a striking change as the play goes on, with Hampshire’s final speech about the significance of the abyss in the legend of King Arthur clearly showing how the character has also sunk into a dark place from which he may be unable to resurface. The other three actors make strong contributions, as well, although their parts are not as developed.
Director Evan Yionoulis keeps the tension taut as the mystery behind the murders unravels. She’s aided in this by the superb original music and sound design of her brother Mike Yionoulis and Sarah Pickett. Everyday noises of campus life, such as the sounds of a school cafeteria, are subtly interwoven into Suzanne’s tale. The music sometimes stays in the background to good atmospheric effect, and at other moments becomes more noticeable, as in the disharmonious sounds that interrupt Hampshire’s above-mentioned speech about the abyss.
Neil Patel’s scenic design depicts a school library with the books on its shelves all painted white. This becomes a large screen that projection designer Leah Gelpe uses to show images of campus buildings, maps, etc. We are never able to see the images too clearly, but memories are often seen as if through gauze, and the technique employed here is effective.
With a running time of one hour and five minutes, the play is just the right length for a university lecture. And there should be no danger of any students falling asleep, as Kennedy’s play — and Hamilton’s performance within it — is captivating.