Six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald has earned the right to be particular about the projects she takes on. Her latest Broadway show—Ohio State Murders, now playing a strictly limited run at the James Earl Jones Theatre through February 12, 2023—was carefully and specifically chosen to give a groundbreaking playwright her long overdue Broadway premiere.
“I was pretty haunted by it after doing the Zoom reading during the pandemic,” shares McDonald, referencing the streamed reading of the Adrienne Kennedy-penned play that preceded this Broadway run. “I was equally haunted by the fact that Adrienne Kennedy had never had any of her plays on Broadway. She is such an incredible playwright: for her narrative style, the material that she uses, and the stories that she tells. I just felt like, ‘This isn’t right. We have to fix this. She deserves to have a Broadway debut.’” McDonald has a long history of using her star power to give up-and-comers in the industry a leg up, covering a list of songwriters that includes Jeff Blumenkrantz, Adam Guettel, and Adam Gwon.
Though Ohio State Murders serves as Kennedy’s Broadway debut, the playwright is far from a fresh face; the 91-year-old has been a powerhouse figure in the American theatre since she burst onto the scene in 1964 with Funnyhouse of a Negro. A basket of Obie Awards and inclusion in the Theater Hall of Fame is among her many accolades, and she’s considered a touchstone for those who love avant-garde storytelling and bracing explorations of race in America.
Ohio State Murders, commissioned and premiered by Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival in 1992 and produced Off-Broadway in 2007, is inspired by Kennedy’s real-life experiences with racism while attending the predominately white Ohio State University in the 1950s. One of the playwright’s four “Alexander Plays,” the work centers on writer Suzanne Alexander, a pseudo stand-in for Kennedy herself, as she’s invited back to her alma mater to give a talk. She shares a disturbing and painful story about her time as a young student at the university, and an interracial relationship that led to violence.
“She’s incredible,” enthuses McDonald. “Her brain is so fast as she talks about her inspiration for the story and her memories from her time at Ohio State. It’s like these moments happened seconds ago. Her emotional connection to everything that went down for her at Ohio State is still so very fresh.”
Kennedy chose to have Suzanne deliver the harrowing story in simple, straightforward language. In a thoughtfully chosen framing device, Kennedy has her heroine deliver the story as a university lecture, though we as the audience see the events unfold on stage. This creates somewhat of an acting challenge for McDonald as she’s forced to fill in the blanks. “The play is very narrative in the way it’s written, so a lot of the emotion of the play is not on the page. Even though it’s there, it’s not on the page,” she says.
But according to McDonald, there’s a reason Kennedy has Suzanne speak like this: clarity is key. “[Adrienne] wants to understand. She wants to educate. She wants people, especially people of different cultures, to understand what systemic racism can do to a person, what it has done,” says McDonald. “Ohio State felt as if it was trying to destroy her, and she had to rise above that.”
Being the vessel of this haunting story forces McDonald to be deliberate about where and when she lets those emotions live inside of her, an experience not unfamiliar to an actor whose credits include tragic heroines such as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Bess in Porgy and Bess, and Sarah in Ragtime.
“What I’ve started to learn as I get older is that I have to leave it at the theatre,” McDonald explains. “I get to the theatre early enough that I can allow myself and my spirit to open up and get out of the way so that this character can tell her truth and tell her story, and I give my spirit to that while I’m at the theatre. When I’m done, I make a habit of saying, ‘Thank you’ to the character, to letting me be that vessel. And then I say goodnight to it, and I leave it there.”