Writers Theatre ‘Parade’ summons a chapter in Jewish-American history

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Pictured: Brianna Borger and Patrick Andrews. Photo credit Saverio Truglia.

Leo Frank was a Texas-born, New York-raised Jew, a Cornell University graduate who left for Atlanta in 1908 to manage his uncle's pencil factory. There, a few years later, he met and married Lucille Selig, who hailed from a well-established German Jewish Southern family-a far cry from Frank's own roots.

By all accounts, the Franks had a strong bond. Their marriage would have continued for decades, no doubt, had it not been cut short in 1913, when Leo Frank was accused and convicted-wrongly, as facts would later establish-of the murder of Mary Phagan, a child worker at the factory. He was sent to prison, where his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Angered by the commutation, a mob kidnapped Frank in 1915 and lynched him in Marietta, Ga., Phagan's hometown.

The case is well documented in the annals of Jewish history, often likened to the France's Dreyfus affair, during which a Jewish Alsatian military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison for espionage. But in addition to anti-Semitism, the Frank case conjured up reminders of some of America's uglier past, including the Ku Klux Klan and child-worker exploitation.

This type of dark material might make it challenging to mount a musical that audiences would clamor to see, Sweeney Todd and Chicago perhaps being notable exceptions. But that didn't stop playwright Alfred Uhry of Driving Miss Daisy fame and composer Robert Jason Brown, whose The Last Five Years has been reprised at regional theaters throughout the country, from teaming up to create Parade , based on the Frank case, which had a three-month run on Broadway in 1998 and 1999 and garnered two Tony Awards for best book and best original score.

Now, Parade is having its first Equity-level production in Chicagoland-at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, from May 24 to July 2-and director Gary Griffin couldn't be more excited. Though Parade was not a critical New York success, enjoying a run of only 85 performances, Griffin believes that Chicago audiences will appreciate the play's messages.

"Chicago audiences are attracted to stories of human truth," said Griffin, "At the core, Parade is a very true one…Audiences here are also very willing to allow a story to accumulate [and gather steam and momentum] before unfolding."

There are other elements of the musical that will generate interest, Griffin said. Parade is a love story between Leo Frank and Lucille Selig-and one of resilience. Though Lucille experienced the deepest of personal tragedies-the murder of her spouse-she refused to leave Atlanta and fade into oblivion. She remained a part of the city's Jewish community until her death in 1957, more than 40 years after the lynching.

Uhry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Driving Miss Daisy and followed it up with the play TheLast Night of Ballyhoo , which also centers on a Southern Jewish family, grew up in Atlanta. His own family had long and deep connections to Lucille Selig's.

Beyond its historic significance, Parade should resonate for theatergoers concerned about the recent rise in anti-Semitism and other acts of hatred, Griffin said.

"It would be great to do this play and say, 'Thank goodness it doesn't exist any longer,'" he said. "We have to recognize that this is part of our culture … How do we respond to violence so that we don't inflame beyond the horrific act?"

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.  


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