‘Parade’ paints morbid picture of bigotry in South
Perhaps the most troublesome thing about discrimination is the wide variety of boundaries that it can cross — color, creed, geography and more. The Tony Award-winning 1998 musical “Parade,” now making its Boston professional premiere as the latest production by the SpeakEasy Stage Company, dissects the spread of hate against the backdrop of the post-Reconstruction South in its tragic tale of a falsely accused Atlanta man.
Alfred Uhry, the Georgia native who famously wrote about his Southern Jewish grandmother in “Driving Miss Daisy,” also penned “Parade,” which was co-conceived by Harold Prince with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. The show is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-raised Jewish man who owned a pencil factory in Atlanta. On April 26, 1913, the night of the annual Confederate Memorial Day parade, a 13-year-old employee of Frank’s factory named Mary Phagan was killed after picking up her pay. There were two African American men at the factory at the time of Phagan’s death: night watchman Newt Lee and janitor Jim Conley. Despite having an alibi, Frank was charged with the murder and convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence.
Frank and his lawyers appealed several times, but his appeals were denied. Then in June 1915, Georgia Gov. John Slaton reduced Frank’s sentence from death by hanging to life imprisonment. Two months later, a group calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Frank from prison and hanged him.
This is tough subject matter for a musical, but SpeakEasy’s production conveys the seriousness and truth of the play’s events quite well, thanks in part to its striking visuals, including the jarring sight of the Confederate flag being marched across the back of the stage during the parades.
Equally noteworthy is the scene featuring a black chain gang, in which Slaton (Terrence O’Malley) interrogates janitor Conley (Edward M. Barker) after Frank’s trial. Accompanied by a strong call-and-answer blues number with an especially great performance by Barker, the contrast between this scene and those featuring the Confederate Memorial Day parades makes the visual of the hardened convicts on the chain gang all the more disturbing.
“Parade” hinges on the palpable fear created by facing one of the scariest moments in the American justice system — how does an innocent man prove his innocence against a courtroom that considers him guilty? In Frank’s trial, the prosecutor’s case was based on coached testimony, demonstrating the lack of proof of the defendant’s guilt. Frank, played by Brendan McNab, sings his defending testimony at the end of the first act: “These people try to scare you with things I’ve never said. I know it makes no sense.” And yet, so many people in Atlanta believed in his guilt, leading to his untimely death.
While the lyrics and dialogue of “Parade” are relatively simple, the music carries the emotion of the plot, truly expressing the show’s deeper themes.
The Broadway production of “Parade” won a Tony for Best Score, with music ranging from the upbeat marches of the parades to comical courtroom testimonies and a hopeful song sung by Frank and his wife, Lucille.
The strangest element of “Parade” to grasp is the scale of the anti-Semitism revealed in its story, as we tend to think that the bulk of discrimination in the South is and has been against blacks. The play examines historical hatred along three major dividing lines: North versus South, black versus white, and Jew versus Gentile. After questioning night watchman Lee (Nicholas Ryan Rowe), Bob de Vivo’s Detective Starnes says, “Hanging another nigger ain’t gonna be enough this time. We gotta do better.”
“Better,” at this time in history, meant singling out the one kind of person that Southerners hated as much as blacks: a Jew. And not just any Jew — in Frank, the community’s avengers had found a northern, college-educated Jew, an even more viable vessel for hate.
That feeling was summed up in the writings of the Phagan family’s pastor, as recounted in “The Leo Frank Case,” Leonard Dinnerstein’s landmark book on the trial: “My feelings, upon the arrest of the old negro watchman, were to the effect that this one old negro would be poor atonement for the life of this innocent girl. But, when on the next day, the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime.”
The show’s song “Real Big News” echoes the preacher’s sentiment. Reporter Britt Craig (Timothy John Smith), having a tough time finding a front-page story, sings, “Take this superstitious city, add one little Jew from Brooklyn, plus a college education and a mousy little wife, and big news! Real big news! That poor sucker saved my life!”
The point of view of the play’s African Americans is a bit different — while they’d rather see someone else hang for a change, they’re also upset at the numbers of blacks that have already died this way, as evidenced in the song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” sung by Barker, Rowe, Kenneth Harmon as Riley and Shavanna Calder as Angela: “I can tell you this, as a matter of fact, that the local hotels wouldn’t be so packed if a little black girl had gotten attacked. There’s a black man swingin’ in ev’ry tree, but they don’t never pay attention!”
The Frank case is all the more tragic for its contribution to hatred in Atlanta and the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan. The United States government had destroyed the KKK with the Civil Rights Act of 1871, but in 1915, following the release of D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation” and Frank’s hanging, the Klan formed again, with members of the Knights of Mary Phagan.
There was one positive outcome from the Frank ordeal: the founding of the Anti-Defamation League in October 1913, following his trial but preceding his lynching.
Nearly a century later, the Frank case remains a hotly contested issue. As lyricist Brown said in a 1999 interview, “In Georgia, they’re still willing to debate with you about the fact that Leo Frank killed her.” It wasn’t until 1986 Frank was issued a pardon by the Georgia pardons and paroles board — without actually clearing him of the crime.
Most tragic of all is that information existed that may have helped to clear Frank before his lynching.
“In 1986, a man who had been 14 years old at the time [of the Frank case], the office boy in the factory named Alonzo Mann, said, ‘I don’t want to die with this on my conscience: I saw [factory janitor] Jim Conley with Mary Phagan’s body,’” said Uhry, whose grandmother knew Frank’s wife, in the 1999 interview. “‘And he said, “If you tell anybody, I’ll kill you.” And I went home and told my mother, and she said, “Well, don’t tell anybody.” And I never did, and I don’t want to die with this.’”
“Parade” is playing through June 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets, visit www.bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600.
|(Left to right): Nicholas Ryan Rowe, Edward M. Barker, Kenneth Harmon and Shavanna Calder singing “A Rumblin’ & A Rollin’” in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Parade,” running through June 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. (Photo courtesy of the SpeakEasy Stage Company)