Ohio State Murders Audra McDonald

Six-Time Tony Award Winner Audra McDonald Returns in Her Most Challenging Role

The Wall Street Journal calls her “the finest stage actress of her generation.” The New York Times counts her “among our greatest artists.” Now, the Emmy, Grammy and 6-time Tony Award-winning star of “The Good Fight,” CarouselMaster Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill returns to Broadway with a “groundbreaking performance” (Glamour) in The New York Times Critic’s Pick Ohio State Murders. The Wall Street Journal raves, “It’s a cause for celebration. As much suspense as the best of Hitchcock. Audra McDonald is nothing short of magnificent.”

“I’ve gotten to a point in life where I’m demanding to have safe spaces so that I can be vulnerable,” McDonald says. “I now understand that vulnerability and softness is necessary when it comes to probing the depths of characters. It’s something I will continue to advocate for myself and for others moving forward.”

This sensibility drives McDonald in her latest theatrical odyssey of starring as Suzanne Alexander in Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders.

“This is the most difficult role I’ve ever played,” McDonald says. “I’ve been stretched. I’ve been challenged. We are leaving our blood and guts on the floor at the end of the day.”

Playing a limited engagement through February 12thOhio State Murders is a New York Times Critic’s Pick and a “cause for celebration,” cheers The Wall Street Journal. This “bold, visionary production” (Variety) is the inaugural attraction at the handsomely redesigned James Earl Jones Theatre. It also marks the Broadway debut of its 91-year-old playwright, Adrienne Kennedy, this year’s recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Drama whose previous recipients include Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller. Directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon, the semi-autobiographical play follows “a famous writer who returns to her alma mater to finally reveal the truth of what happened when she was a student there.” It’s one of Kennedy’s Alexander Plays, the collection of four plays that centers on her alter-ego, Suzanne Alexander. Onstage she is joined by Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham, Mister Fitzgerald, Lizan Mitchell, and Abigail Stephenson.

“It reconstructs, revisits, and relives a very dark time in her past in a very emotional and evocative way,” McDonald says. “When secrets open up, she lays bare the systemic racism, the inherent misogyny, and the colorism within the institution, within Ohio, within the United States. At times it’s quite traumatic, but I think it’s ultimately triumphant.”

McDonald hadn’t seen any of Kennedy’s work before signing on for the Spotlight on Plays reading of Ohio State Murders in June 2021. The series highlighted seven plays by female playwrights through benefit readings for the Entertainment Community Fund (formerly the Actors Fund). Kennedy’s words struck a chord with McDonald when she finished the reading.

“I turned off my computer and I was just gutted,” McDonald remembered. “The poetry of the piece and the exploration that happens stuck with me. The language was complex, tricky, and beautiful. I kept thinking about how it was a semiautobiographical piece too.”

All of these components made the decision to do it on Broadway a “no-brainer” for McDonald, she says. It’s been grueling, but she is enjoying the Herculean task that she calls “a 75-minute monologue.” Both McDonald and Leon are focused on honoring the piece and making Kennedy’s debut at 91 years old “everything it should be.” Kennedy’s age hasn’t slowed her down from fully engaging with McDonald from where she resides in Virginia. The pair have weekly calls in addition to daily emails.

“I get to extract all of the ‘why’ for this piece directly from the source,” McDonald says. “Adrienne’s language is very specific and very poetic. Suzanne and I don’t speak the same way, so I’ll call and ask Adrienne, ‘Why does Suzanne say this? Why does she feel that? Why did you choose this specific word?’ She has really guided me through this process.”

McDonald’s growth and evolution while rehearsing this play also come from feeling safe with Leon as her director. The pair have a two-decade-long relationship. Working together on the 2004 Broadway revival and the 2008 TV film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun allowed them to develop a shorthand that has led to open communication and a strong understanding of each other in the room.

“He’s one of the hardest directors I’ve ever worked with because he pushes me into very dangerous and scary places with the character work, but in a way that I know he is going to protect me as I go into whatever space I need to go. I can say, ‘That’s too much,’ or, ‘You need to help me find my way there.’ I feel that vulnerability in the rehearsal room with him.”

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