Director Tiffany Nichole Greene stages esteemed playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s OHIO STATE MURDERS with a cinematic twist in this second installment in Goodman Theatre’s Live Series. OHIO STATE MURDERS centers on Suzanne (a harrowing Jacqueline Williams), an accomplished writer who returns to Ohio State University’s campus for the first time since her freshman year in 1949. There, Suzanne gives a lecture on the violent imagery in her work — and the origins of that imagery are much closer to the university than audiences may initially suspect.
Kennedy’s script packs a punch. Suzanne recounts the discrimination she faced as a young woman at Ohio State — the English department refused to let Black students declare a major without taking two trial classes first, not believing they were capable of doing the work. She shares that she forged a relationship with her adjunct professor Robert Hampshire (Shane Kenyon) — whom she often refers to as “Bobby.” And she shares how Bobby rejects her after she becomes pregnant by him. Suzanne also reveals that one of her twin baby daughters was murdered. And thus, Kennedy uses Suzanne’s individual story as a commentary on the violence against Black bodies in America — and Suzanne as someone who faces extraordinary obstacles as a Black woman.
While Suzanne’s story has a chamber theater quality to it — she relays events to the audience using direct address — OHIO STATE MURDERS has a non-linear path to its conclusion. Suzanne weaves us in and out of different moments in the play, and this piecing together of the narrative seems emblematic of the trauma she experiences.
Video director Christiana Tye and director of photography Gabe Hatfield employ camera angles that give OHIO STATE MURDERS a cinematic feel. Most of the time, the camera shows audiences close-up shots of Williams. In many instances, the focus on Williams has a documentary-style aesthetic— she’s recounting her brutal truth to the audience. While the shots are nicely framed, it does in some ways make the production feel more closely related to film than traditional play stagings — even as it is performed live in real time.
As indicated in the script, Greene also uses the ensemble members to bring images from Suzanne’s past to life. We see Young Suzanne (Eunice Woods) on campus in her dorm room with her roommate Iris Ann (Destini Huston). At various points, we also see her interact with her husband David (Ernest Bentley) and many key female figures in her life (all portrayed by Dee Dee Batteast).
While it’s an interesting choice to bring scenes from Suzanne’s past to life, some of those dramatized moments land better than others. Suzanne’s story is so raw, intriguing, and powerful — and William’s performance of the role equally impactful — that some scenes feel like they make the action too literal. Kennedy’s script and Suzanne’s words oftentimes speak for themselves, and Williams relives the moments with such vivacity that her direct address never becomes boring.
The ensemble does have some standout moments that complement Williams’s monumental performance. Woods makes Young Suzanne’s struggles feel real, especially as she navigates the difficulties of new motherhood and the unbearable tragedy she faces. Kenyon is appropriately smarmy as Professor Hampshire. Batteast infuses some moments of levity in her role as Suzanne’s candid Aunt Louise. Huston provides a great complement to Woods, as both navigate the challenges of being young Black women on a university campus that does not make them feel at all welcome. And Bentley plays David with plain earnestness, demonstrating a small way forward towards healing for Suzanne.
The Goodman’s production of OHIO STATE MURDERS gives audiences a chance to experience a lesser known work from Kennedy, but one that is entirely topical and also a fitting choice for the livestream format.
Goodman Theatre’s OHIO STATE MURDERS has streaming performances on Friday, 6/18 at 7:30pm, Saturday, 6/19 at 2pm and 7:30pm, and Sunday, 6/20 at 2pm. Tickets are $25. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/OhioState.
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com
Photo Credit: Flint Chaney