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Ohio State Murders
Like several of Kennedy's plays, notably The Owl Answers and Funnyhouse of a Negro, Ohio State Murders makes fluid use of time. Set at Ohio State University in "the present," when alumna Suzanne Alexander (Lisa Gay Hamilton), a dramatist and short-story writer, is giving a lecture about "the violent imagery" in her work, the play moves back and forth between that present and the years 1949-1952, when Suzanne was an undergraduate (Cherise Boothe).
But where Owl and Funnyhouse, both written in the 1960s, are passionate, feverish cries for understanding—surreal, even messy nightmares of African-American experience—Ohio State Murders, first produced in 1990, is a comparatively cool, objective look at the brutality to which racial prejudice can lead. As narrated by the older Suzanne—a slim, straight-backed Hamilton, speaking to the audience in a nearly affectless voice—the story of how her college-age self was seduced by a white English professor named Robert Hampshire (Saxon Palmer), and how the children from that brief relationship were later murdered, is much more awful for being told in a distant, almost ladylike way.
Indeed, as smartly directed by Evan Yionoulis, this production accentuates the play's coolness. On the long, shallow stage of the Duke on 42nd Street, Neil Patel's set offers up bookcases and books that look a ghostly white, with only here and there a piece of stiff, uninviting modern furniture. Capping the effect, designer Christopher Akerlind washes the set with chilly light.
In this environment, even the performances feel muted. Hamilton's performance is restrained, and the few moments of passion—from Palmer's English professor, when he reads aloud passages from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (a story that also involves a murder), or from the fine, expressive Boothe—are that much stronger for being isolated and selective.
The result is that Ohio State Murders becomes more than a play about one woman's experience of racial hatred in the United States. Suzanne's narrative conveys the terrible ease with which one group of people can victimize another, in the United States or anywhere. The events that have led to the violent imagery in Suzanne's fiction are both specific to her and, as we know all too well, horribly commonplace.
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