Adrienne Kennedy’s work traffics in the subliminal corners of the American racial imaginary. Her early, enormously influential plays—The Owl Answers, Funnyhouse of a Negro, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White—are layered and dense with allusion and image; they don’t tell linear stories but connect narrative strands, themes, and characters with the logic of a nightmare. On the surface, the later suite of plays known as the Alexander Plays are simpler—closer to realist, stories about one character, professor and writer Suzanne Alexander. But they’re still centrally about the undercurrents of the American psyche and the complicated relationship of reality to narrative, which is why I’m not sure it’s helpful that the current Broadway revival of Kennedy’s 1992 play Ohio State Murders, directed by Kenny Leon encourages the audience to see Alexander as a direct analogue to the author, starting and ending the play with recordings of an interview with the playwright about her upbringing. Yes, the racial dynamics of Alexander’s experience at Ohio State are drawn from Kennedy’s own memories of attending school there in the early 1950s. But Ohio State Murders uses the prism of a murder plot and of Suzanne’s desperate need to find the cause of that murder, as a metaphor for the psychic destructiveness of that environment. It feels a little dismissive of the complexity of Kennedy’s work, and of the way the character Suzanne Alexander is wielding this story as a rebuke, to view this as autobiography, and to illustrate the piece with graphic images of real-world racial and political violence.
Having said that, there is a delicious irony in the way the play addresses a question I’m sure Kennedy has been asked (or been asked a version of): What is the source of the violent imagery in your work? In Kennedy’s oeuvre, the answer is always America–American racism and misogyny and class division but also American cinema and world literature (her plays often quote from and dialogue with other texts, as she does here with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Arthurian poetry). Here, Suzanne Alexander has been invited to speak at Ohio State, the school that struck here then and now as “a series of disparate dark landscapes.” The school is not her alma mater–because she was dismissed from it for getting pregnant, and not allowed to return because the head of her dorm found her thoughts on T.S. Eliot and Richard Wright unsuitable. Nonetheless, now that she’s a success, they want her to talk about her time at their school, but also the source of the violent imagery in her work. (Another level of cognitive dissonance: the eagerness with which the school now embraces the very student upon whom they visited indignity and trauma.)
The answer, too, could be everything: The daily racist slights to her intelligence and her integrity that she faced in college. Being abandoned by the white father of her infant twins, and then being suspected of knowing more than she tells the police about her daughter’s murder. Her father’s sermons about lynching (illustrated here by brutal projected images). But instead, she tells a very specific story about her college experience, about the daughters she’s never been allowed to publicly acknowledge, about their death to save a white man from embarrassment.
We learn early in the play, almost in passing, about the murder of one of Suzanne’s twin daughters–but the title is Murders, and we spend most of the piece waiting for the jaws to close. Suzanne remains in a boarding house in Ohio with her other daughter, suspended by wanting the solution to the crime; we are waiting to see who else is going to die, knowing that the horror isn’t over yet.
Other productions of the play have used different actors to play Suzanne in the 1950s and the present; here, Audra McDonald gives a stunning performance in both roles. In a library–strikingly conjured by Beowulf Boritt’s set as a whirling vortex of bookshelves spiraling up to the sky, with a backdrop cracked open to reveal a snowy sky–Suzanne rehearses the lecture she will give. She’s precise and controlled; she’s built the narrative of her youth line by line and block by block to make sure the audience cannot look away from the story she is telling, nor miss its point. But rather than calling up memories of her younger self on display, McDonald is reliving them for us, showing us both the fragility of her youth and her sense, even then, of the mistreatment she was receiving. Where the young Suzanne is tentative, the older Suzanne has built the armor of definitiveness; where the young Suzanne could be brought to tears by a literature lecture, the older one is describing a moment of horror with measured gravity.
The other figures in the play–Suzanne’s college roommate, her aunt, her fiance–are conjured from Suzanne’s memory without a lot of detail. Leon doesn’t seem quite sure on which level of reality those other characters reside; they all have a tamped-down quality as if not just appearing from memory, but appearing vaguely remembered. (The roommate never even speaks, only weeps and plays the violin.) Even Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham), the English professor who praises Suzanne’s mind but is also the agent of her destruction, is represented more by his quoting of other works than as a character. And in a haunting image, the twins are represented by lengths of pink fabric whose limpness makes them creepy even when alive. But McDonald does a remarkable job relating to the “babies”, and we see Suzanne’s rapid growing-up process through the shift in the ways she handles them: dull fear and resignation when they’re first placed in her arms, an anxious tenderness when she has to take one to the doctor.
The murders are described with the same precision and clarity that Suzanne–and McDonald–brings to the rest of the narrative. Even her description of her own paralytic grief is specific, narrative–yet at the same time, this story is at the root of her violent work, just as the poison of racism is at the root of Kennedy’s. The life Suzanne has built as a writer is a fragile bridge over that abyss of grief and belittlement and violence; the whirling vortex of words with which she greeted the news of her daughter’s murder–”Abyss, bespattered, cure-less, misfortune”–remain with her still.