IF THOMAS HARDY HAD EXPLORED RACISM
by Harvey Perr
published November 8, 2007
Ohio State Murders
now playing Off Broadway at the Duke on 42nd Street
through November 18
“I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work.” So declares Professor Suzanne Alexander at the start of Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders.” “Ah”, I thought, as someone who has been following the autobiography of Ms. Kennedy’s state of mind for forty years, “finally.” It was not the question I might have asked, but it seemed like the inevitable question once it arose. And, in the end, after she has told her story, in a manner more direct and lucid than one would have expected from Ms. Kennedy, and one realizes that racism is the culprit, Professor Alexander says, “And that is the main source of the violent imagery in my work. Thank you.” It is the “Thank you” that one remembers. Adrienne Kennedy has never been less than polite and well-mannered even though her central subject is arguably the scourge of our time and certainly the scourge of her existence.
Racism. Of course. And yet it is interesting to note that in 1964, when Ms. Kennedy’s first play “Funnyhouse of a Negro” made its initial appearance, another play about racism was around – “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka, then known as Leroi Jones – which had a devastating impact by forcing its white audience to confront its own complicity in racist brutality. By contrast, “Funnyhouse” seemed, at the time, to be about one black woman’s dream, a nightmarish journey into a head full of personal demons and literary allusions, too abstract and oblique for the villain of the piece to be considered societal. The violence of Baraka’s imagery was palpable; the finger was pointing at us. The violence of Ms. Kennedy’s imagery was in her mind, poetic and fragmented and elusive.
The force of Baraka’s rage can still be felt, but it may be Ms. Kennedy who had the staying power. The beauty of “Ohio State Murders” is that, in facing the facts behind the fevered dream, she reaches a state of such profound clarity that the history of her times comes into focus as well. After a lifetime of reaching into herself, Ms. Kennedy has at last transcended herself. The problem with “Ohio State Murders” is that she remains aloof, that she is still emotionally disconnected from us, that the depth of her conclusions touches mostly her core audience. The story she tells – of a young black student whose brief affair with her white professor ends with the murders of the twin children who are the product of that affair – is vivid and powerful, but, very self-consciously, the way she tells the story is surgical and, at the same time, bloodless.
Ms. Kennedy’s attraction to Victorian novels is also a theme that repeats itself in her work, and the number of books, their spines painted white, in the cavernous library that Neil Patel has designed for the Theatre For A New Audience production, brilliantly conveys that attraction; but it is somewhat misleading, for surely Ms. Kennedy has read Richard Wright as well as Thomas Hardy, even if her own writing style, in its measured preciseness, owes more to Hardy. Film, too, its resonance and its influence, registers deeply in her plays. In one of her more interesting plays, “A Movie Star Has To Star in Black and White,” she recreated chunks of “A Place in the Sun,” “Now,Voyager,” and “Viva Zapata.” In “Ohio State Murders,” it is the memory of Eisenstein’s “Potemkin,” with its own “violent imagery,” that takes center stage and, since Ms. Kennedy is a storyteller, not a film historian, she can be forgiven for including an image from “October” in her conjuring up of images from “Potemkin.” It is hard to say what all this reliance on white culture is about, but it still complicates, in distancing ways, her
main theme of racism – although, admittedly, it may say more than this reviewer is fully capable of understanding.
Evan Yionoulis’s direction has not helped the play by submitting so committedly to its intellectual rigor. But Lisagay Hamilton’s performance is a pich-perfect impersonation, intentional or not, of Adrienne Kennedy herself. It gives verisimilitude to this potentially heartbreaking confession. One feels sad that “Ohio State Murders” doesn’t reach that kind of epiphany, but neither does it alter the abiding feeling that the blazing originality of Adrienne Kennedy and her oeuvre remain undiminished.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com