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After years of stellar Off-Broadway work, the character actress returns to Broadway
The buzz surrounding Ohio State Murders is palpable. The story of a successful Black woman writer invited to her alma mater where she reveals incendiary truths, the production marks Audra McDonald's big return to Broadway as well as the long overdue Broadway debut of Adrienne Kennedy, a legendary African-American playwright who recently turned 91. And no one is more thrilled about it than cast member Lizan Mitchell, a superb character actress who hasn't been on Broadway in 23 years. "It's going beautifully," she says. "I am astounded by how rapt the audience is. It's pretty amazing in this high-tech time that you can still tell a story and hold people's interest like this."
In a career spanning five decades, Mitchell has performed in scores of plays around New York and beyond, and acted occasionally in films and on TV. She's found herself particularly busy post-shutdown: Over the past 12 months, she's starred in cullud wattah at The Public Theater, On Sugarland at New York Theatre Workshop and Clubbed Thumb's Bodies They Ritual, all new plays written by Black women.
Broadway has only come calling a handful of times, but Mitchell doesn't seem to mind too much. As a Black woman, she's more concerned with what a work says than where it's staged. "A while ago, I made the decision that it was my journey to tell the story of my people," she says. "The joy that I get from telling my own story is just incalculable and, amazingly, it enables me to tell other people's stories better."
Growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, Mitchell worshipped the Black actors who animated New York's stages in the 1960s. "I had this huge poster in my bedroom of James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett doing The Blacks, the Jean Genet play," she says, referring to the landmark production that ran Off Broadway in the East Village in 1961. "In the South, we hadn't come to the point where we could manifest a theatre company like that. The preponderance of talent and the level of performance! That's what I was looking at."
But she didn't join the ranks of her idols until years later, and then only by chance. In 1986, she was appearing in So Long on Lonely Street at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, when Cheryl Crawford, "the first female producer with juice," decided to bring the show to Broadway. "And that's how I got here," Mitchell says. "Girl, I felt like I was coming to another country."
Although the production's New York run was brief, it changed the trajectory of Mitchell's life. "I didn't intend to stay—I really didn't, because it was so alien to me," she recalls. "I could not understand how people lived with all this concrete." But she started to see the Big Apple's appeal. "It's such a vibrant city and it's right on the edge of everything. It's just irresistible for anybody in the arts."
The opportunity to connect and collaborate with so many innovative theatre artists, especially Black ones, kept her in NYC. And before long she met Kennedy, whose work Mitchell is currently performing on Broadway eight times a week. "Of course, I'd heard about Funnyhouse of a Negro and what a visionary she was," Mitchell says. "There's this wonderful playwright that used to live here in New York named Bil Wright. Bil's the one who introduced me to Adrienne Kennedy really, because he loved her work so much. He said, 'I'm just going to put together a small festival, and we'll read excerpts from her work.'"
Prophetically, Mitchell was asked to read from Ohio State Murders (which premiered in 1992) at that event. "What struck me is how she says so much in such a lean way; there's no extra anything. And it's a huge story on so many levels but, I think, accessible to the public because it's a familiar kind of path," Mitchell says. "Leaving your hometown, going to college… I think that makes it relatable, so that people can kind of sit back and say, well, I know about this—but you don't really."
As a graduate of an integrated but largely unwelcoming Catholic high school in Greensboro, North Carolina (a city particularly roiled by the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement), Mitchell identifies strongly with Ohio State Murders' protagonist (played by McDonald), who is one of just a handful of Black students on a racially hostile college campus. "She's stepping out of a bubble into this other environment where there is no one to help," says Mitchell. "And I remember that feeling, because one of the nuns in my school said, 'Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a'" and then she uses a racial epithet before completing the rhyme. "At the same time, we were demonstrating—I went to jail maybe three or four times. They arrested almost my whole town. So many people got arrested that they had to book us in a place the size of the Javits Center. I'm serious! It was 19 of us in a cell meant for two."
Although Mitchell's part in Ohio State Murders is small (it's truly the Audra show), she is thankful to be back on Broadway in a play that not only speaks to her personally, but also allows her to celebrate her longtime hero James Earl Jones, for whom the theatre was recently renamed. "This thing with Mr. George Floyd and COVID has made me feel things that I never even knew were in there to feel," she says. "And I feel like the story that we're telling exposes something that was hidden for so long on so many levels. And for Audra to be the captain of the ship is amazing. I really do believe it is an offering to humanity."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Ohio State Murders. Go here to browse all theatre, dance and music offers.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Lizan Mitchell.