!>/files/2007/06/paradebrown.jpg! In 1913 Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, was accused of murdering a child employee, Mary Phagan, on Confederate Memorial Day. The violent murder provoked feelings of rage in a town and region uncertain about its place in the world and its future. The subsequent conviction, sentencing to death, and then commutation to life imprisonment of Frank led to a resurgent of the Ku Klux Klan as well as the founding of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. While there is substantial evidence that Frank was falsely accused and improperly convicted, his sentence has never been overturned, and many to this day continue to proclaim his guilt.
I saw _Parade_, a musical retelling of the Leo Frank story, back in 2003 and took issue with the book, worrying that the complexities and ambiguities of the story were lost in this retelling. And while the story was powerful, it was hard to get a real feel for the players.
In the SpeakEasy production, running at the Boston Center for the Arts through June 15th, some of these problems have been remedied in brilliant fashion, while other fundamental flaws in the book remain.
When the story opens with the stirring and patriotic “Old Red Hills of Home,” I was captivated by the beauty of life in the South. Throughout the first act, Leo Frank was portrayed as a completely unsympathetic character, and I found myself involuntarily cringing almost every time he opened his mouth. A Brooklyn fish out of water, Frank is unable to connect on any level with his city, his employees, or his wife.
Act two begins with Frank on death row. As he gradually accepts his situation and begins to take control of his life and his (possible) future, he becomes a more sympathetic and understandable character. He reconciles with his wife, convinces the governor of his innocence, and wins a stay of his execution. The fundamental goodness of a few individuals is shown: the judge with his second thoughts who writes to the governor in favor of clemency; the governor who puts aside his political future in pursuit of the truth; and of course Lucille, Leo’s wife who sticks by him at the same time that she develops into a strong, independent woman. In the end, as the sun rises on yet another Confederate Memorial Day and the parade begins just hours after the body of Leo Frank is found hanging from a tree in Marietta, I could not help but feel complete disgust at the blind Confederate patriotism, the senseless pagentry, and the prideful marking of a xenophobic past.
Which is to say that this play can be powerful, and that this staging certainly is. And that makes it good theater.
But does it make it good truth? As I posted back in 2003, the truth of the Frank affair is more subtle, the good and the bad less clear, the mistakes made on both sides and exacerbated by pride and fear more evident. So see the production of _Parade_ at the SpeakEasy, revel in the beautiful music of Jason Robert Brown and the neat period costumes and the story. But be wary. Do not read too deep a truth into the events portrayed.