Audra McDonald has been here before.
And before. And before. And before. And before. And before. And before. And before. And before.
The actress earned her 10th acting Tony Award nomination on Tuesday, for best leading actress in a play, for her role as the writer Suzanne Alexander in Adrienne Kennedy’s 1991 play “Ohio State Murders,” the 91-year-old Kennedy’s Broadway debut. The feat ties her with Chita Rivera and Julie Harris as the most nominated individual performers in the 76-year history of the awards.
“It’s an honor,” said McDonald, who has won six Tony Awards, the most of any performer. “But the work is the true joy.”
McDonald, 52, previously won four featured actress Tonys in the play and musical categories for her roles in “Carousel” (1994), “Master Class” (1996), “Ragtime” (1998) and “A Raisin in the Sun” (2004). She won leading actress Tonys for her performance as the strongheaded Bess in the musical “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” in 2012 and her turn as the famed jazz singer Billie Holiday in the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” in 2014. She is the only person to win in all four acting categories.
In his review of “Ohio State Murders,” which he called a “piercing production,” the New York Times critic Jesse Green praised McDonald’s performance, “ripped from her gallery of harrowing women,” and noted that it builds to “a shattering catharsis.”
In an interview during her lunch break from a workshop in Manhattan on Tuesday, McDonald discussed her milestone achievement, why it still feels special to be recognized for this particular production and what she hopes people took away from her performance. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
This is your 10th nomination, and you’ve already secured the record for the winningest performer, with six Tonys. Is it still special?
It’s incredibly special. Being able to be a part of Adrienne Kennedy having her Broadway debut and getting her work seen by a larger audience was something that was very important to me. Even if I hadn’t gotten a nomination, I’d still feel very proud of the work. I was honored that she trusted our vision and what we wanted to do with the play.
The older and younger versions of Suzanne Alexander are usually played by two different actors, but you played both. Why?
Because Suzanne is going back in time to remember these things, I thought being able to actually step into those memories and feel them in her body would inform even more when she stepped back out of them to a narrative, reflective place. So I asked Adrienne for permission for that and she said, “Sure, that’s great, let’s see what happens.”
What spoke to you about the show?
How often do we have plays that really center a Black woman’s experience? This is a chance for the character Suzanne — and it’s semi-autobiographical, so Adrienne, to an extent — to be able to speak her experience. Being able to play this incredibly brilliant, wounded and, in some ways — at the end of the play — triumphant woman was very appealing, even though it was very, very difficult. And it was an indictment that needs to be delivered in terms of what systemic racism does to people, and how it destroys.
In his review, Jesse Green praised your “astonishing access to tragic feeling.” Where did you go to find that?
When you’re playing a role you have to be that character’s advocate at all times, even when you’re playing a villain. Part of being an advocate for Suzanne is trying to find the empathy for the pain and the terror and the tragedy and the trauma that she experienced. The powerful question in acting is, “What if that were to happen to me?” What would I be thinking? What would I be feeling?
How did your performance evolve over the course of the run?
Because the play is so incredibly dense and the language is so full and poetic, for me the evolution came in becoming more at ease with Adrienne’s language, which I don’t think I had at the beginning of the run.
Your character’s babies are represented, not with dolls, but as slips of pink fabric. Why?
That was the brilliance of Kenny Leon, who’s an incredible director. We knew that once you bring babies onstage, even if they’re dolls — which was one thought at one point — it was going to be very difficult to set them aside for times when the focus isn’t necessarily on them. We wanted to make sure the audience wasn’t distracted by them.
What do you hope people took away from the show?
I hope they had a broader understanding of the destructive power of racism. I also hope that people who are not Black could see that we are not a monolith. This is a woman, as a character, who is not always represented onstage, and I wanted this very educated and smart and brilliant, yet wounded, woman out there telling her story and centering her story and demanding that it be heard.
What did Kennedy tell you after seeing it?
She was very moved. I still speak with her. I got an email from her a couple of days ago, actually, and I’m going to go visit her in a couple of weeks. She was very happy that we had done it. She’s had a lot of people play the role and I think loved all the interpretations of it.
How does it feel to have been able to bring a lesser-seen work to the stage?
Plenty of people have known who Adrienne Kennedy was for years, but there was a younger generation that was introduced to Adrienne Kennedy with that production, and that makes me happy.