COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A play written by an Ohio State University alumna detailing her experiences as a Black freshman in the 1950s is heading to Broadway.
Written by award-winning playwright Adrienne Kennedy, “Ohio State Murders” follows writer Suzanne Alexander who returns to her alma mater as a guest speaker. Throughout the play, Alexander’s experiences as one of the few Black freshmen at OSU in the 1950s unravel, and a mystery emerges.
Although Kennedy has many accolades, including being inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, her plays have never been produced on Broadway — until now. At 91, Kennedy will make her playwriting Broadway Debut as “Ohio State Murders” opens at the James Earl Jones Theatre on Dec. 8. Six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald will star as Alexander.
The play mirrors the racism Kennedy faced while at the university, depicted through the semi-autobiographical character of Alexander. Raised in Cleveland, Kennedy graduated from OSU in 1953.
“My dormmates at Ohio State: Often from southern Ohio towns, they were determined to subjugate the Negro girls,” Kennedy wrote in her 1987 memoir, “People Who Led to My Plays.” “They were determined to make you feel that it was a great inequity that they had to live in the same dorm with you … an injustice.”
Kennedy has said her time at the university left an emotional scar, leading her not to visit the campus for more than 30 years after graduation. The discrimination she faced is analyzed throughout “The Ohio State Murders,” first produced in 1993. Now, Dr. Lesley Ferris, an emeritus professor at OSU, said the issues addressed in the play are as poignant today as they were then.
“’Ohio State Murders’ is a play that addresses issues from 30 years ago and also today,” Ferris said. “The play insists that audiences see and understand what it means to deal with racism.”
Ferris, a lifelong theater director and scholar, has advocated for women playwrights and has been a close friend to Kennedy. Ferris said she was stunned by Kennedy’s “experimental nature” the first time she read one of her plays. Over the years, Ferris continued following Kennedy and her work.
“I continued to see her plays being published, and theatre scholars often wrote about her plays, but rarely were they produced,” said Ferris. “When [Kennedy] wrote ‘Ohio State Murders’ and I was gearing up to move to Columbus, I decided to make sure we included that play in our university theatre season.”
When Ferris joined OSU, she kept the promise to herself and set in motion a production of “Ohio State Murders” with Black students at the helm. As a chair in the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies, Ferris also organized round tables for discussions on Kennedy’s work and her influence on American theater.
Now retired, Ferris is beyond delighted Kennedy’s work will finally be on Broadway. Ferris and Kennedy’s friendship culminated in a special honor in 2003. Exactly 50 years after her undergraduate graduation, Kennedy received an honorary doctorate from OSU. Ferris nominated Kennedy, who said she was thrilled to accept the honor.
Kennedy wrote to Ferris afterward, saying she now sees the university in a different light — all thanks to Ferris.
“Ohio State Murders” will begin performances on Nov. 11 ahead of its opening on Dec. 8 at the James Earl Jones Theatre. View tickets and more details here.