Tuesday, June 06, 2017


May 24 - July 2, 2017
Writers Theatre 
325 Tudor Court 
Glencoe, IL.
Photos by Michael Brosilow

Cast of Parade in cakewalk style
It is interesting to view PARADE in our times, about Leo Frank a Jew, who was accused of rape and murder in 1913 in Atlanta, and then lynched due to the extreme anti-Semitism of the times. Today in America we are asking many of the same questions that were asked in order to contextualize his guilt or innocence like: Do we value freedom, democracy, and the rights of “outsiders” even if we don’t like them or trust them? How is America "made great again"? Is race a part of the fabric of this country? What role do Jews play in America as Americans and as Jews? 

At this time period in the early 1900s, Jews were seen not only as different from the white Christian majority of Americans, but were also perceived to be socially, politically, morally, and even racially dangerous. Henry Ford, the car manufacturer, was writing hate essays about international Jewish conspiracies and blamed WWI on Jews. The Dreyfus case in France in the late 1800s was a world-wide publicized scandal about military officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been found guilty of spying and sent to prison on Devils Island - chosen due to his Jewish heritage. 
Jake Nicholson as Frankie Epps; Caroline Heffernan as Mary Phagan

Then in 1913 Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn, New York, and the business manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, 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 shows the multiple resentments towards Frank being from the North and Brooklyn (“Jewish elitist"). He stands out in that community 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 paid low wages. 

But then 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 because of the demonic stereotypes believed about Jews. Frank was depicted in newspapers as physically grotesque and these anti-Semitic caricatures were referenced in the court hearings. 

A strong prejudicial belief was spread that Frank had an insatiable sexual appetite and that he enlisted African-American workers in the plant to enable his sexual needs by guarding the doors while he enticed the girls who toiled under the harsh conditions of the plant. The girls testified against him, but do so as though brainwashed to speak the “truth” the prosecuting attorney wanted them to say against this so-called “outsider” Jew.

The Franks fought for their rights, 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 the killing of Jesus their Savior. 

Clearly the play is opposed to Christian fundamentalist beliefs that breed hate towards Jews. But the driving force of the music and the Southern gospel sounds work both to emphasize hate bred by fanaticism and at the same time the music provides an empathy for characters that were spreading hate. 

It was disconcerting to hear wild applause after a musical number depicting, in preacher-style, anti-Semitism towards Leo Frank. Another case was when the African-American worker Jim Conley, who is used to either frame Frank or may even have been the rapist/murderer (according to most historians of the case), sings a song while on the chain gang and forcefully confronts the governor who is gathering new evidence. He sings in a provocatively grotesque manner that evokes horror. Yet the number was once again wildly applauded despite its dark message. 

I'm not sure what can be done, since the style of the show is confrontational and works to disrupt the usual "feel good" style of musicals. The directing possibly could have been more clear that these songs were not meant for applause but were meant to depict the makings of an atrocity.

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Jim Conley
The cast works hard to get beyond these dichotomies. The deeply felt performance by Patrick Andrews, as Leo Frank, is a multi-dimensional portrayal of a man who is fallible, arrogant, and 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 - one 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, who persists in seeking evidence to clear her husband’s name, 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.

Patrick Andrews as Leo Frank; Brianna Borger as Lucy Frank
The times that 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. Consequently this Writers Theatre production speaks with resonances that weren't recognized 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. 

Being an American today is a challenge. Are we the patriotic Americans who long for a view of history that is romanticized and nostalgic or are those of us who support immigrants the real danger to our country?

And being an American Jew today is also deeply difficult. Do we blend in as Americans and become inauthentic to our culture, ethics, and beliefs? Or do we only accept one kind of expression of what it means to be a Jew?

Patrick Andrews as Leo Frank
This story is a compelling witness to the history of the “outsider,” who is used as an excuse to stoke fear and hate. As a result the desire to blend in is stronger. 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 this song is also a metaphor for the fear, prejudice, hate and injustice that monopolize our time. The song is really a prayer that the time we have hear on earth should be filled with love, fairness, and a faith - Jewish or otherwise - that doesn’t breed hate. 

And at the end of the play Leo Frank declares the Shema, which is the statement of the Jewish creed that God is one for all peoples and that all have equal worth in God's sight. Then like so many others before, who died al ha-Kiddush HaShem - for the sanctification of God’s name, he bears fatal witness to that belief.

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