Historic injustice has message for today in the musical “Parade” at Writers Theatre

By David Y. Chack, Special to Chicago Jewish News

What is America today? Do we still value freedom, democracy, and the rights of “outsiders” in this country, even if we don’t like them or trust them? ‘Parade,’ at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, asks this question through the historic event of the unjust trial of Leo Frank, and his wife Lucy Selig Frank’s struggle for justice.

In 1913, Jews were seen not only as different from the white Christian majority of Americans, but were also perceived to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Henry Ford was writing hate essays about international Jewish conspiracies in his newspaper the Dearborn Gazette. The Dreyfus case in France was a world publicized scandal about the Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been unjustly found guilty of spying and sent to prison on Devils Island.

In Atlanta, Leo Frank, a Jew, and the business manager of a pencil factory, was found guilty of the rape and murder of 13 year old employee Mary Phagan. After multiple appeals of his case, potentially leading to a Supreme Court hearing, he was abducted from jail and lynched by a mob of vigilantes.

Despite the racism of Jim Crow South, and the inclinations of the public to assume African-American guilt in these kinds of events, the play quickly establishes that Frank is seen by the populace and the authorities as Phagan’s rapist and killer. It also shows the multiple resentments towards Frank from being from the North (“elitist”). He stands out in that community as a Jew from Brooklyn, while his wife, from a Southern Jewish family, has learned to fit in. The play further shows the lack of workers’ rights and child labor laws that exploited them and so many others.

The musical, in its tableaux theatrical style, shows that Mary Phagan was made into a Christian martyr and that the community believed she was killed by a Jew. Leo Frank was depicted in newspapers through physically grotesque and anti-Semitic caricatures that were referenced in the court hearings. A strong prejudicial belief was spread that Frank had an insatiable sexual appetite and that he even enlisted African-American workers in the plant to enable his sexual needs by guarding the doors while he enticed the girls. The girls from the plant testify against him, but do so as though brainwashed to speak the “truth” that the prosecuting attorney wanted them to say against this so-called “outsider” and demonic Jew.

Yet the Franks fought for their rights as Americans, using the democratic processes that they had available to them, through appeals and further trials – gathering new evidence and demanding facts, in opposition to the emotional rants by the Christian newspaper editor who saw Jews as inherently evil for killing Jesus.

The production is wonderfully cast and each performer embodies their roles through dynamic singing and full characterizations. The deeply felt performance by Patrick Andrews, who plays Leo Frank, is a multi-dimensional portrayal of a man who is fallible, arrogant, and who sets himself apart from the Atlanta community. His arc through the play is about one who learns about his own struggle to be a man, a husband, and a Jew – someone who is suffering an injustice of epic proportions.

The character of Jim Conley, the African-American who testifies against Frank, played by actor Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, is a tour-de-force. His song near the end of the play is both horrific and touching as he depicts the plight of being Black in America.

Brianna Borger, who plays Lucy Frank, persists in seeking evidence to clear her husband’s name, and is both an anchor in seeking justice and a source of authentic faith in a time and place that uses religion as an excuse to cry “let’s make America and the South great again” to justify prejudice and hatred.

The times in which we now find ourselves, in an age where “nativists” are seen as the real Americans, as opposed to “internationalists” who want to open borders and let in outsiders who may rape our women and take jobs away, is chillingly mirrored by this show. Thus this Writers Theatre production has resonances that weren’t in the original production in 1997. Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years,” “The Bridges of Madison County”) have created a work that speaks more strongly today than when it first premiered.

The Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London made changes from the original production, and it is this version that Writers Theatre and director Gary Griffin have produced in a relentless, nearly operatic work. Still Griffin’s directing and the set could have been more crisply defined, which would have made the action even more intense. The actors have more space onstage than they know what to do with, which also leads to confusing notions of what one area on stage was meant for, when it was used for another location.

Yet the performers and the story are compelling witnesses to history that uses the “outsider,” who is not like the majority, to stoke fear and hate. Near the play’s inevitable conclusion, Leo and Lucy have a “picnic” in his jail cell and sing the gorgeous duet “All The Wasted Time” which speaks to their personal story. But it is a metaphor for how fear, prejudice, hate and injustice monopolize our time, and a prayer that our lives should be filled with love, fairness, and a faith that doesn’t breed hate. At the end, Leo Frank recites the Shema, which is the statement of the Jewish creed that G-d is one, and like so many others who died al ha-Kiddush HaShem – for the sanctification of G-d’s name – he bears fatal witness to that belief.

“Parade” is in production until July 2 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. For tickets, call (847) 242-6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.

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