Ford’s Theatre is the perfect setting for patriotic plays. The 19th century design, with the seats so close to the deep stage. The presidential box with the red, white and blue bunting, and the picture of George Washington in place where it was the night Abraham Lincoln was shot. It makes you want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, sing the Star Spangled Banner and pay your income taxes on time.
Unfortunately, however, “Parade”, a musical based on the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia in 1915, is not what you would call a patriotic play.
Leo Frank, a young man raised in Brooklyn, but living in Atlanta managing a pencil company owned by a relative and married to a Jewish woman from Atlanta, apparently felt very much out of place, and let it be known. Cold, business-like and seemingly unfriendly. The opposite of a southern good ole boy.
When 13 year old Mary Phagan, who worked at the factory (child labor laws being either non-existent or ignored), was found murdered in the factory basement, and in spite of lack of any but the most circumstantial of evidence, Frank was accused of the murder, tried, convicted and set for execution.
Georgia Governor John Slaton, under much pressure, undertook a review of the case, learned that significant testimony had been obtained under threat or pressure and had been recanted, that Frank had an alibi as to where he was at the time of Phagan’s death, and that the evidence pointed to a African American janitor at the factory (who had been convicted of abetting the crime), and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. (It has been suggested that Frank was scheduled to be fully pardoned, but that it was felt that emotions were too high to pardon him completely at that time)
Upon hearing of the commutation, a group of citizens broke into the jailhouse, pulled Frank out, and hung him, saying that they were carrying out the sentence of the jury.
Frank was an outsider, a Jew, a boss, a Yankee, and an unfriendly, standoffish guy. Which of these characteristics pushed the prosecutor (who became a fairly progressive governor of the state), the jury, and the mob to convict and lynch him, in spite of lack of evidence, is hard to say. But the trial and its aftermath led both to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League and the Ku Klux Klan.
Back to the show. The acting, the direction, the staging were first rate. The music, although there are no tunes to remember, is certainly enjoyable for the most part. But to me there is a disconnect. How do you have a musical about the lynching of Leo Frank?
The event itself is tragic and shows Americans at their worst. The white southerners of Marietta and Atlanta come off terribly. So do the African Americans, as it was apparently an African American who committed the crime. Even the Jews don’t come off well, as Frank may have been innocent of the crime, but he lived in contempt of everything around him.
The story line of the play does, of course, take some liberties with history. It gives Frank’s wife a major role in convincing the governor to re-examine the case; I am not sure she played any role, at all. It makes it appear that Frank’s attorney did not put up Amy defense at all; he just sat there and looked like part of a conspiracy against his client. In fact, he presented spirited cross examinations and called over one hundred character and other defense witnesses. It made it appear that the Frank’s maid testified against him; from what I have seen, she gave supportive testimony. It made it appear that the case was being tried in a Georgia vacuum, where in fact it commanded national attention.
All this aside, I thought that each of the actors played his or her role credibly. My problem was the chorus, on throughout the play in many guises. They were too clean (looked too much like they walked off the set of a Rodgers and Hammerstein stage), and why were there African Americans in this chorus of white racists? I understand color free casting, but there is a limit, isn’t there?
The playwright and composer of Parade had only the best of intentions, I am sure. Perhaps, if you could put aside the subject matter (perhaps by performing in a foreign and little known language) you would make for an enjoyable evening. But, as it is, I think “Parade” misses the mark.