A writer, Suzanne Alexander (Audra McDonald), addresses her audience. She is speaking at Ohio State University, her alma mater. It has been forty years since she attended the school in 1949, and she has been asked to speak about her time there but also about “the violent imagery in my work.” Over the next seventy-five minutes, she tells her story. As a student, her brilliant work in her English classes went neglected and she was forced to declare a major in elementary education.
A young professor, Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), recognizes her talent: “The language of the paper seems an extension of Hardy’s own language,” he writes in response to her essay on Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When he hears she has to take a trial class before she can declare an English major, he shakes his head. “It’s a shame,” he says twice, but he never challenges the racism behind the decision. In an echo of Tess, he does offer another kind of support, which results in the birth of three children, all girls, two of them twins.
Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders is about the deaths of these three children. Their father killed them and then himself, paranoid that news of the affair would destroy his life. Kennedy gives the viewer this information within minutes, and the play is not a mystery but a dirge. I can’t remember the last time I heard this much crying in a theater.
The play itself is unsentimental, and McDonald tells her tale with discipline and restraint. Pinkham is also understated, hiding behind his tweed suit, his soft, weedy voice, and a misanthropic love of literature. The stage is almost empty, except for bookcases full of law books dangling from the ceiling.
Suzanne, of course, is both like and unlike Kennedy, who did attend Ohio State University in the ’fifties, who did receive her degree in education, and who did have kids with a man she met while at OSU. Their children, however, were not murdered. The play suggests that this is a matter of chance. Suzanne, asked to provide the source of the violent imagery in her work, practically spits her answer. In this, it is not unlike Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child, in which the narrator, a Holocaust survivor, provides a novella-length answer to the question, “Do you have children?” (The answer is no.)
Ohio State Murders, with a title that suggests something closer to Agatha Christie, says this: We know who was murdered. We know who murdered them. There is no mystery. Only the inertia of white supremacy.
Ohio State Murders runs through January 15th at the James Early Jones Theatre. 138 W. 48th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 15 minutes. No intermission. Photograph by Richard Termine.