McCarter Presents Round House Theatre’s “Ohio State Murders”; Video Continues Festival Honoring “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy”
“OHIO STATE MURDERS”: Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center are presenting “Ohio State Murders.” Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Above, writer Suzanne Alexander (Lynda Gravatt) returns to her alma mater to give a lecture, whose subject matter includes her turbulent experiences as a student. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. Kennedy is an African American playwright whose accolades include multiple Obie Awards, including Lifetime Achievement. As a press release notes, her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”
This four-part festival, consisting of videos filmed by the Round House, opened with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, in which a multi-racial couple’s letters reveal disturbing family histories; and continued with Sleep Deprivation Chamber, in which a writer seeks justice for her son when he becomes a victim of police brutality.
Ohio State Murders is the current installment, which became available as of December 5. Following the drama’s 1992 premiere by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, which commissioned the piece, it was included in a Signature Theatre Company season (1995-96) devoted to Kennedy’s work. Theatre for a New Audience gave the play its New York debut in 2007.
The protagonist of Ohio State Murders also is that of Sleep Deprivation Chamber: African American writer Suzanne Alexander, a partially fictionalized version of Kennedy. In both dramas, Suzanne confronts a series of incidents that has a devastating impact on her family.
The Round House’s production of Ohio State Murders begins with Agyeiwaa Asante reading the opening stage directions (“Time: present. Setting: night”) from a music stand on a bare stage, an image that connects this production to the previous two videos.
Suzanne, however, has realistic-looking “scenery” behind her: a background representing a full bookcase. She is visiting Columbus, Ohio, to give a lecture at her (and Kennedy’s) alma mater. Ensconced in the stacks of the university’s library, she rehearses her talk, reading from a set of prepared notes. As with Sleep Deprivation Chamber, the storytelling is marked by a stream-of-consciousness style.
As the present-day Suzanne (portrayed by Lynda Gravatt) speaks, we see a college-age version of her (Billie Krishawn) in her dormitory and other places around the campus, during her freshman year (1949). The younger Suzanne, and the characters she meets, are seen in black and white. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton largely eschews the festival’s earlier productions’ “staged reading” look, in favor of a more cinematic style. She is aided by Visual Effects Designer Kelly Coburn, Director of Photography Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, and Lighting Designer Sherrice Mojgani.
We first see the younger Suzanne attending a “required English survey course.” She chuckles when she recalls the lecturer, Robert Hampshire (Rex Daugherty), whom she describes as “small, and dressed rather formally in a tweed suit and a vest.”
The class studies Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. As we have seen in all of the plays presented by this festival, literary quotations are a key element of Kennedy’s work. Hampshire delivers this foreboding Hardy passage: “He stopped and looked at her inquiringly. ‘Angel,’ she said, as if waiting for this. ‘Do you know what I have been running after you for? To tell you that I have killed him.’”
Both Gravatt and Daugherty deliver nuanced performances that blend a measured, even enigmatic, vocal delivery with intense gazes and hand gestures. Gravatt’s speaking style, often eerily calm, often is at its spiciest when Suzanne is imitating the snippy inflections of racist university staff or dormitory residents with whom she comes into conflict.
Although the classroom is described as seating 50 to 60 students, Suzanne is the only one that we see; Hampshire is reading exclusively to her. Hampshire does not project much emotion as he reads. Nevertheless, the younger Suzanne’s facial expression shows her to be riveted, as she silently quotes the passages along with the lecturer.
With eerie matter-of-factness Suzanne abruptly reveals that the “ravine [where the first murder takes place] was where the faculty lived. A year and a half later, one of my twin baby daughters would be found dead there — but that was later!” she adds, trying to push the memory away. Gravatt’s hand motions demonstrate that this effort inhabits Suzanne’s entire body, as she frantically taps her head.
Sound designer Larry Fowler punctuates the revelation with the sound of running water, mixed with wind, a single repeating chime, and just a hint of choral music. It is one of the most chilling sequences in the play, in part because of the abrupt timing with which it is achieved.
Back in Suzanne’s freshman year, Hampshire requests an appointment. Perusing one of her papers, he asks if she wrote it, wondering if she copied a reference book. She assures him that she did not, and he returns the paper, abruptly ending the conference. As she walks home Suzanne remembers the positive comments Hampshire has written on it, calling it “an extension of Hardy’s own language.” Later, during another class session, Hampshire reads another passage from the novel. Looking directly at Suzanne, he quotes: “I do love you, Tess.”
At Suzanne’s dormitory we meet her roommate, Iris Ann (Heather Gibson). Iris Ann is disconsolate that her boyfriend has broken off their engagement, so Suzanne keeps her company, accompanying her to dinner followed by a walk around the campus. Later they attend a screening of an old film, The Battleship Potemkin (1926).
Suzanne abruptly reveals that she became pregnant in the following year, after she had spent two days with Hampshire, “above the ravine.” The younger Suzanne tells Hampshire, who looks around to ensure they are not being overheard. After expressing frantic disbelief, he abruptly leaves.
Eventually Suzanne is expelled. She receives the news from the head of the dormitory, whose cold female voice is heard but unseen — not unlike the interrogators in Sleep Deprivation Chamber. Because of Suzanne’s pregnancy and expulsion, she is no longer welcome to live with her parents. She moves in with her sympathetic Aunt Louise (who is given an earnest, impassioned portrayal by Andrea Harris Smith). Suzanne stays with her aunt until her twins are born.
When they are three months old, she returns to Columbus. Aunt Louise arranges for her to stay in a friend’s boardinghouse. It is there that Suzanne meets her future husband, David, who is studying law. The initial meeting between Suzanne and David — whom actor Yao Dogbe infuses with dignified soulfulness — is wordless. Nevertheless, Krishawn and Dogbe use body language that immediately establishes a close affinity. (Dogbe gives a sharply contrasting performance in his dual role as Suzanne’s cold, confrontational boyfriend Val.)
Shortly after Suzanne arrives back in Columbus, her daughter Cathy is kidnapped and drowned in the ravine. The suspects include an ex-convict who prowls the campus, posing as a student; and a group of women from the dormitory, one of whom accuses Suzanne and Iris Ann of stealing her watch. Eventually two other characters are found dead: Carol and Hampshire.
Ohio State Murders joins the other plays in the festival in highlighting Kennedy as a playwright for whom it is crucial to share stories from one’s past. Like the scripts, the Round House productions share certain characteristics, blending the intimacy of live theater with the appearance and rhythm of a film. Like Suzanne, Curtis-Newton creates art that is shaped by her external circumstances; she (like the festival’s other directors) uses the medium in which theater artists must currently work, in search of a new, hybrid method of storytelling.
Round House Theatre’s production of Ohio State Murders will be available to view online through February 28, 2021. The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence will continue with the world premiere of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side (available starting December 12). For tickets, festival passes, and further information visit mccarter.org.