By Hubert Ta
It seems often enough that history repeats itself. Historical cycles run on a series of similar behaviors and events, culminating in a lesson that refuses to be learned despite constant repetition. Claire Trevor School of the Arts’s staging of “Parade,” Jason Robert Brown’s Tony Award winning musical, is an allegorical lesson on how prejudice and predispositions can corrupt and pervert the ideals of justice.
“Parade” is based on the true story of Leo Frank, convicted for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia. Frank, a Jewish factory manager, was cast as the main murder suspect, and publicly vilified in the press with anti-Semitism and yellow journalism. Frank was eventually convicted with Jim Conley’s (likely fabricated) witness testimony but his execution sentence was commuted by the Governor John Slaton, who gave him life in prison. Frank was lynched by a mob shortly afterward. Set in the year 1913, the case represented a menagerie of tensions at the turn of the century, between Jews and Gentiles, whites and blacks, North and South. Sparking national debates on these tensions, Frank’s case was also construed as miscarriage of justice, an American version of the Dreyfus Affair (a French scandal in which a Jewish officer was falsely convicted of treason), and helped lead to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The musical opens with a letter from a lone Confederate soldier, envisioning his return home after the American Civil War. Many years later, the same soldier is now a one-legged old man, and celebrates Confederate Memorial Day with the rest of Atlanta. On that day, Leo Frank, played by fourth-year undergraduate student Jacob Ben-Shmuel, heads to work around the same time that Mary Phagan goes to the factory to receive her paycheck. After Phagan’s murder, Frank and Newt Lee, a black night watchman, are arrested. A public campaign against Frank is started by an overzealous reporter, Tom Watson (Nicholas Ehlen), while Lucille Frank (Kelsey Jenison) struggles with Leo’s trial and the hateful atmosphere of Atlanta.
“Parade” excels in its design and music, which combines the tensions of the early 20th century and a South still reeling from the Civil War. The set is burned; shades of red brick, gray ash and black wood recall the burning of Atlanta during General Sherman’s March to the Sea, while the gas and candlelit lanterns harken to an age that was still transitioning to electricity. The costumes call back to a historical era of top hats and elegant gowns, framing the Southern aesthetic that runs throughout the musical. This too, reflects the racial disparity of the white and black citizens of Atlanta, noticeably divided by their economic status. Even the curtain that hides the stage reeks of Americana, as Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “Our Banner in the Sky” vividly portrays the Star-Spangled Banner. Finally, the visage of the hangman’s noose and Frank’s lynching haunts the stage, swinging back and forth like the pendulum of a clock.
The music combines the popular musical styles of the era: folk, ragtime, swing, blues and hymns. The opening number, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” breathes fire into slow, somber folk and Americana, a longing to return home. “Real Big News” is more upbeat and tempo heavy, with mixtures of jazz and ragtime accompanied by a Broadway musical flair establishing Watson’s efforts to demonize Leo Frank in the press: “so give him fangs, give him horns, give him scaly hairy palms, have him drooling out the corner of his mouth.”
The testimonial nature of “That’s What He Said” and “The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office” reflect an ominous take on swing and religious hymns, filled with doubt, sincerity and threats disguised in vox populi. The inverse is reflected in “This is Not Over Yet,” a hectic surge of hope for an appeal and “I Never Knew Anything,” a romantic love ballad of Leo and Lucille Frank’s last meeting. The most powerful song is “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” which portrays the viewpoints of black Americans who regard the sensationalism and furor of the Frank case with derision, a lament on how a Yankee’s injustice is national news, but if the situation involved a black man, nobody would even care.
“Parade’s” relevance is abundantly clear as a modern allegory where fear and prejudice dominate under notions of xenophobia and misunderstanding. It marks a society that has difficulty learning from its mistakes, and breathes life into debates on race, justice, the power of mass media and the role of public opinion. At the same time, it offers hope in the form of a lesson, derived from multiple perspectives and historical retrospection, that injustice may be overturned. Directed by Myrona DeLaney and choreographed by Andrew Palermo, “Parade” currently plays at the Irvine Barclay Theatre until November 20.