When the lights come up onstage at the start of “Ohio State Murders,” playing at the James Earl Jones Theatre on W. 48th Street, the audience sees Audra McDonald’s back facing them. But this is not going to be your usual Broadway play. There is something about the six-time Tony Award winner that demands quiet and focus. The audience soon learns that her character is a successful playwright, lecturer and author named Suzanne Alexander, and that she is a guest speaker at her alma mater, Ohio State University, where the university has invited her to explain the violent images in her works. Meticulously, the play’s author, Adrienne Kennedy, takes us through her remembrances of her time at the university in the late 1940s and ’50s, and the blatant, cruel racism that she experienced. At age 91, Kennedy is making her Broadway debut with this powerful work, and it is explosive. 

Suzanne is one of a handful of Black students and all the barriers are in full force. Black students don’t live in the houses on campus as the white students do—they come in as freshmen and can only live in dorms. The white sororities don’t in any way associate with the Black students and candidly let university staff know that they have nothing in common with them. Suzanne is a brilliant freshman writer and wants to be an English major, but this is not a privilege granted to Black students. The racism, the environment of white superiority, is flagrant at this university. Suzanne is constantly bombarded by unfair treatment and social ostracizing, which leads to a great deal of loneliness. In this atmosphere, which is so mentally detrimental, Suzanne finds herself drawn to her white professor, Robert Hampshire. She loves literature and when she reads Hardy, she understands the work on a level that impresses him greatly.

McDonald is painstakingly methodical in her detailed portrayal of this character. Every word, every movement is measured to perfection. You become engulfed in all her utterances and remembrances as you listen to a devastating story. 

Bryce Pinkham as Robert Hampshire is stunningly captivating. He lets you experience the attitudinal transitions that his character undergoes. 

This one-act, 75-minute play includes performances by three other outstanding actors. As Suzanne recalls her interactions at OSU, she remembers Black classmate Iris Ann, played by Abigail Stephenson, a gifted violinist who was not given any positive feedback at the school and ends up dropping out. Stephenson is very touching in this role. David Alexander/Val were both love interests of Suzanne at different times in her life, both poignantly played by Mister Fitzgerald. The final member of the cast is Lizan Mitchell, who very successfully takes on the three roles of Mrs. Tyler/Miss Dawson/Aunt Louise, delivering each role with distinct clarity, passion and purpose.

This is truly a work of art that will have you drained from the magnitude of its brilliance, power and devastation. This is what a Broadway drama should be! It leaves you breathless. The only thing you can do when it’s finished is shout approval at the top of your lungs. 

Kennedy is a writer who should be revered for decades to come. The direction of Kenny Leon is flawless. He has a marvelous gift—every time that I see his works, I feel enriched. He understands theater inside and out, and he understands playwrights and actors and the best ways to bring out their strengths so they leave the audience thinking, appreciative and stunned. 

“Ohio State Murders” leaves you wanting to see it again. It is a riveting portrayal of the racism that Blacks faced in this country in the 1940s and ’50s in academic settings—and a reminder that racism still exists today.For more info, visit www.ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com.

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