Parade tells the difficult but compelling, “ripped-from-the-headlines of 1915” story of Leo Frank, the only known Jew to fall victim to a Southern lynch mob. A native New Yorker, Frank had moved to Atlanta to become superintendent of his uncle’s pencil factory, which employed local teenaged girls at low wages. One of those girls, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, was found murdered in the factory’s basement on Confederate Memorial Day (an occasion marked by a celebratory parade, hence the play’s title). Suspicion quickly fell on Frank, the last person to see her alive, and the local prosecutor, eager to secure a conviction, railroaded him by coercing witnesses into giving false evidence. Frank spent two years on death row unsuccessfully appealing his case before the Georgia Governor, John Slaton, reviewed the trial and evidence and commuted his sentence to life in prison. Outraged by this turn of events, a group of twenty-eight prominent Atlanta citizens, banded together as the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” stormed the prison where Frank was being held, kidnapped him, drove him seven hours to a location outside Marietta, near Phagan’s home, and hung him from the branch of a tree.
The musical Parade takes this historical event and frames it in the larger context of a host of post-Reconstruction cultural, social, and economic tensions. In the play’s opening number, a young Confederate soldier woos his girl before heading off to defend Southern white rural values; the opening song, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” speaks of his intention to fight for “a way of life that’s pure” and “the truth that must endure.” The song’s final stanza is sung by the now much older soldier, returned defeated from the war, nostalgic for “the treasures we held dear” and longing to “sing Dixie again.” Into this bucolic idyll of conservative Southern values intrudes the nebbishy northern Jew Leo Frank, to whom the South seems “like a foreign land/ I didn’t understand/That being Southern’s not just being in the South.” His cultural difference is so pronounced that even though his skin is white, he is as much if not more a racialized Other than the African-American characters (whose own “belonging” to Southern culture hinges on their acquiescence to its racist restrictions). Frank not only represents a geographic and religious Other, he also represents the encroachment of industrialization on the rural South, and with it the imposition of time cards and a miserly accounting for every penny spent in contrast to the South’s self-mythification as a place of ease and generosity. The play thus frames Frank’s conviction for Phagan’s murder as the consequence of the need for a new scapegoat in response to social and economic upheaval. This may or may not be historically accurate, but it allows the play to open questions of how and why certain “Others” in history make for convenient devils, which are questions that seem never to lose their relevance (the racial profiling in Ferguson just the most recent case in point).
The production, directed by Pittsburgh native Benjamin Shaw, tells this story with energy and flair. The scenic design (Gianni Downs) is spare, putting focus on the performers, and Shaw and choreographer Zeva Barzell make dynamic use of movement and dance to keep the play visually interesting. Kenneth Chu’s beautifully crafted costumes do the heavy lifting of not only steeping us in the time and place of the action but also deftly orienting us to the characters’ class and social status. Deana Muro directs the music with a sure hand, and there are some knockout performances in the show. Particular showstoppers include Joe Jackson’s unscrupulous, scoop-happy reporter in the number “Real Big News”; Justin Lonesome’s “testifyin’” song “That’s What He Said”; and the duet between Lonesome and the young standout Arica Jackson, “Rumblin’ and a Rollin.’” Jesse Manocherian is convincing as the neurotic, money-obsessed, hypochondriacal Leo Frank (oh, the stereotypes!), but his best musical number is “Come Up to My Office,” a wonderful fantasia in which he steps into the skin of the slick, rapacious predator his Southern persecutors have painted him to be. It is, in fact, in these last two numbers mentioned that Parade as a whole is at its best, capturing the complexity of race relations and exploring how pernicious and damaging our assumptions and stereotypes about others can be.