FIERCE BLACK SPIRITS: 'OHIO STATE MURDERS'
I exited Ohio State Murders recently speechless with admiration, and sorrow. I remain so. The play, by Adrienne Kennedy, and the lead performance, by Audra McDonald, so starkly speak for themselves that I’ve got nothing to add.
Ms. Kennedy, a living master playwright acknowledged the world over but never before on Broadway, makes her obscenely belated Broadway debut with Ohio State Murders, at the age of 91. Ms. Kennedy is Black. What else can I say?
Her play is an anatomization of American racism as Ms. Kennedy herself endured it in its most barbaric and murderous form when she was a young student at Ohio State University in 1949. The details of her trauma are so excruciating that I cannot bring myself to describe them here. They must be experienced, via Ms. Kennedy and Ms. McDonald, and there is just one week left to do so — Ohio State Murders closes January 15.
In Audra McDonald, Ms. Kennedy and her play have their decisive interpreter, and this, too, seems redundant to write. We all know by now what Audra McDonald can do, and yet, I was knocked flat by the ineffable emotional nuance of her performance. Audra can belt and Audra can wail incandescently, but it is her emotive self-restraint in Ohio State Murders that is earth-shattering, a moment-by-moment aria of pain and rage delivered as one breathtaking melisma.
Throughout the Booth Theater as you enter into Ohio State Murders, audio of a recent interview with Adrienne Kennedy plays. Her voice returns again during intermission, then escorts the audience out at play’s end. This soundscape triggered a memory that I can elaborate upon here, an eerily reminiscent conversation involving Audra McDonald and another neglected Black theatrical eminence that I myself witnessed. I don’t believe I’ve ever written about this before.
In March 1998, I attended a George Gershwin Centennial celebration and symposium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Among the many esteemed speakers was Anne Brown, Gershwin’s original Bess for his 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess. At 85, Ms. Brown was back in the U.S. after abandoning her American opera career in 1948 and moving to Norway, fleeing the racism that had relentlessly thwarted her ambitions. I was shocked and delighted to discover that Anne Brown was, in fact, still alive. I was also mesmerized by her eloquence, her clarity of mind and spirit in describing her long ago ordeals here and her subsequent triumphs abroad. I introduced myself, and interviewed her for the New York Times when she came up to New York for a few days before her return to Norway. You can read that article HERE.
We kept in touch. Actually we became friends. Anne wrote me long, handwritten letters about her operatic activities in Oslo (including directing productions there of Porgy and Bess). She wrote about her family, her children, and her memories, which I particularly savored. Finally, she informed me that she was coming back to New York for another visit in December.
As it happened, just weeks after interviewing Anne in 1998, I’d interviewed Audra McDonald for the Times about the release of her first solo album, Way Back to Paradise. (That article you can read HERE.) I was just as taken with Audra’s lucidity of intellect and essence as I had been with Anne’s; two ladies of color with once-in-a-generation talent and no fear. I even mentioned to Audra that I’d recently met Anne Brown. She knew exactly who that was.
Anne’s return triggered a sense of mission in me. Anne Brown and Audra McDonald simply had to meet. I contacted Audra, who was then in the final months of her Tony Award-winning run in Ragtime, and asked her if she might be interested in an after-performance rendezvous with Anne Brown. She was. I wrote Anne about Audra McDonald and invited her to see Ragtime with me and meet Audra McDonald after. Anne was delighted.
Tuesday evening, December 22nd, Anne and I made our way backstage at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (today, blessedly restored to its original name, The Lyric Theatre) for our assignation with Audra McDonald. Anne had, of course, been wildly impressed with Audra’s performance. She was especially eager to talk to her about vocal production and, beyond that, life.
I escorted them uptown in a cab to Café des Artistes on West 67th Street, a restaurant that had always seemed to me conducive to spirits, and to conversation.
The restaurant was almost empty at this late hour. We were seated at a capacious table by the window. Tea and desserts were ordered, as well as aperitifs all around. I then literally got out of the way, pushing my chair back a distance from the table.
The conversation took flight. Neither lady was shy. Anne had been the first Black vocalist admitted to the Juilliard School of Music, at the age of 16; with all the agonies that entailed. Audra, too, had suffered at Juilliard, forced to sing opera when her taste ran to Streisand and Garland. They commiserated. Anne, ever the teacher, particularized the strengths of Audra’s vocal approach in Ragtime but also was not reticent about suggesting subtle improvements to her technique for such a “belty” score. Audra absorbed this avidly. Finally, Audra asked Anne about George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess.
I had, in fact, put the same question to Audra during our interview earlier that year. Her answer was to the point. “I love the music but I will never play Bess.” When I asked her why, she demurred. “It’s just not for me.”
Anne now told Audra how, as a 21-year-old Juilliard graduate student, she had written to Gershwin after reading that he was writing an opera “about Negroes in South Carolina.” How Gershwin had invited her to come to his apartment and sing for him; then had continued to invite her to regularly return and sing whatever he had newly written for the opera — for all the characters, not just the female parts. How, finally, Gershwin had offered Anne the role of Bess in his opera, adapted from the novel Porgy, by Dubose Heyward, and then, just before the production headed to Boston for its first preview, had taken Anne to tea and presented her with the new title page for his opera, forever after to be called: “Porgy and Bess.” Because of her.
Audra was understandably overwhelmed. I know that I was. Anne then announced to Audra, point-blank: “You must play Bess one day.”
I thought Audra might hesitate. Instead she took Anne’s hands in hers, looked into her eyes, and replied: “I will.”
And she did.
Anne did not live to see it, sadly. She died March 13, 2009. Audra opened on Broadway in what was now formally retitled: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in January 2012, winning a Tony (once again) as Bess.
Thankfully, and somewhat miraculously, Adrienne Kennedy has survived long enough to witness Audra McDonald stand up for her work on Broadway. It is a triumph that transcends Porgy and Bess. But it reminds me, inescapably, of Anne Brown.