Stages

Review: Goodman’s Ohio State Murders Tells a Story of a Life Haunted by Echoes of Its Past

Williams, left, and Woods on the Owen stage. Photo by Flint Chaney.

Author Suzanne Alexander’s life is haunted by her past. With Jacqueline Williams playing Suzanne in this 1992 Adrienne Kennedy play, we get a glimpse of campus life in mid-century America and the changes that have come about since. Not enough changes but changes still.

Suzanne’s story of her life as an Ohio State undergraduate is portrayed in Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, part of Goodman Theatre’s three-play Live series. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, the play is performed live before multiple cameras on Goodman’s Owen Theatre stage and streamed live to viewers at home. (See details below.)

Suzanne arrives at Ohio State in 1949 when there were few Black students on campus. One of her first courses in an English lit class where a young faculty member, Robert Hampshire (Shane Kenyon), enchants her by reading from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. She entered OSU as an undeclared major and decides she wants to major in English. She’s disappointed to learn that the department doesn’t allow Black students to major in English. “I didn’t know there were no ‘Negro’ students in the English Department. It was thought that we were not able to master the program,” she learns.

Suzanne’s life becomes entwined with Professor Hampshire’s and there the tragedy begins and evolves into the murders suggested by the play’s title. The play runs just over an hour, but it is a thrilling and intense 65 minutes.

Kennedy tells Suzanne’s story in an episodic way, dropping tantalizing hints here and there. The play is a monologue by present-day Suzanne as she tells the story of her life on campus and in Columbus, or at least the parts of it where Black students could go. Young Suzanne, played by Eunice Woods, is there and often older Suzanne is on stage with her, commenting on young Suzanne’s actions.

The framing device for Suzanne’s story is that, now an acclaimed author, she has been invited to campus to give a lecture and talk about her work.

“I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work; bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus. The chairman said, we do want to hear about your brief years here at Ohio State, but we also want you to talk about violent imagery in your stories and plays.”

The play is older Suzanne’s way of telling this story. At the end she says, “Until today, I have not been able to speak [about the Ohio State murders]. And that is the source of the violent imagery in my writing.”

“People think the past is dead but they don’t understand that the past has echoes and those echoes reverberate into our present and our future.” That quote seems as if pulled directly from Kennedy’s 30-year-old play but it’s actually from On Juneteenth, a new book by Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed.  (H/T to Jonathan Capehart, who quoted Reed on MSNBC today.)

Jacqueline Williams creates Suzanne as a compelling character who lives the constrained life of a Black woman in mid-century America. A sympathetic observer to her story is her boyfriend and future husband, David Alexander (Ernest Bentley). Iris Ann, Suzanne’s OSU roommate, is played by Destini Huston. And Dee Dee Batteast plays Aunt Louise and Mrs. Tyler, Suzanne’s landlady in Columbus.

Set design is by Arnel Sancianco with lighting design by Jason Lynch and sound by Melanie Chen Cole. Video direction is by Christiana Tye with photography by Gabe Hatfield.

Jacqueline Williams. Photo by Flint Chaney.

Williams is a Chicago theater stalwart who has been performing at Goodman Theatre for more than 30 years in productions such as Father Comes Home from the Wars, Pullman Porter Blues, Camino Real, Crowns, and Blues for an Alabama Sky. She also has performed in notable plays at other theaters, such as Man in the Ring, Harvey, Gem of the Ocean, Fences and Caroline, or Change at Court Theatre, and in True West, Familiar and The Christians at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Ohio State Murders is one of four Adrienne Kennedy works known as the Alexander Plays; Suzanne is a recurring character in all four. The other plays are She Talks to BeethovenThe Film Club and The Dramatic Circle; they were published together under that title in 1992. Kennedy’s best known play is probably Funnyhouse of a Negro, which won an Obie Award. If you’re interested in learning more about her work, I recommend this New Yorker article by Hilton Als.

Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter’s newest work, I Hate It Here, will be the third production I the Live series; it will be streamed July 15-18.

Ohio State Murders will be performed live and streamed to home screens three more times. Performances are at 2pm and 7:30pm Saturday, June 19, and at 2pm Sunday, June 20. You can buy tickets for $25 here.

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