On April 26, 1913, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan was raped and murdered. The superintendent at the Atlanta, Georgia pencil factory where she worked, a Jewish man named Leo Frank, was blamed for the crime and sentenced to death. The then-governor of Georgia, John Slaton, became convinced that the prosecution of the court case had been flawed, and commuted Frank's sentence; this so inflamed the community that a mob broke into the farm prison where Frank was being detained and lynched him.
Historically, the case is a study in prejudice and the power of rhetoric and scapegoating. The case is credited with giving new life to the KKK (through the efforts of publisher Thomas Watson, who also served as a congressman) and casting a pall over the South's Jewish community -- and with prompting the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, which remains a strong defense against anti-Semitism even today.
It's now believed that the likely killer was a man named Jim Conley, who also worked at the factory. Conley had been seen washing what appeared to be a blood-stained work shirt; decades later, in 1982, Alonzo Mann, who as a boy had also worked at the factory, came out with a statement that he had seen Conley carrying the girl's corpse. (Conley, he claimed, threatened his life and his family pressured him to keep quiet.)
Artistically, the case makes for a powerful drama of justice denied and politics run amuck. Because he was a Northerner from Brooklyn, as well as a Jew, Frank's "guilt" served the ambitions of those in a position to profit from his conviction.
Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's play "Parade" speaks to the theatrical nature of how the crime was handled and how the subsequent trial was conducted. A newspaperman named Britt Craig (Ross Brown) plays the story up to the benefit of his own fading career; the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey Ken Orben), coaches witnesses and pressures some of them to provide false testimonies. (In real life, Dorsey succeeded Slaton as governor of Georgia; the play suggests he rode a wave of populist resentment and anti-Semitism into office.)
At the heart of "Parade," however, there's a story of a timid man coming into his own resolve, and of his distant relationship to his wife growing close and loving. Jason Robert Brown's Tony-winning score tackles the evolving nature of Frank's (Adam Schuler) relationship with wife Lucille Lori L'Italien), as she struggles with ignominy and eventually succeeds in her efforts to have Gov. Slaton (Ross Brown once again) look into the case.
The play also takes the occasional foray into the popular sentiments surrounding the case. In one lyric, the white citizens of Atlanta cry for the "Jew" to die; in another, a black man and his wife take malicious glee from the fact that it's a white man facing the wrath of the community for a change, even as they complain that no such outcry would have resulted from the murder of a black child.
The F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company production of "Parade" boasts excellent performances from a live orchestra of half a dozen musicians, and some truly moving singing. Kelton Washington steals all his scenes; his three roles includes that of Conley, who, in an especially nasty perversion of justice, testifies against Frank in court, claiming that Frank often assigned him to guard the office door while he carried out assignations with unwilling female employees and, more damning, spins a tale of having been paid by Frank to carry Phagan's body to the cellar and dump it there. Schuler's high-strung, homesick Frank becomes nuanced and dimensional before our eyes and ears; L'Italien conveys deep reservoirs of strength, and the two deliver truly tender moments, especially in the song "All the Wasted Time."
Even the putative villains of the piece are given some context in the show's framing renditions of "The Old Red Hills of Home." Like anyone else -- and this is as much a virtue as a flaw -- Atlanta's residents seek to maintain stable communal ties to tradition, and to one another. As a judge notes while fishing, change is good but in some respects it should occur only gradually, lest we lose our bearings. What we have here isn't simply "a failure to communicate," as another powerful study of Southern manners once put it. "Parade" is also about complex historical and tribal baggage. The play need not spell its subtexts out in scholarly detail for us to appreciate them on a visceral level.
That said, the black box space at the Arsenal for the Arts is not ideal for this musical. Not all of the cast are strong singers, and even those who are have to battle the acoustics. From time to time, the music drowns out the singing. That one quibble pales next to the production's clever, shoestring execution. Music Director Steven Bergman does a masterful job, acoustics notwithstanding (the orchestra is clearly, crisply audible at every moment). Director Joey DeMita's scenic design creates a strong visual impression from the very start: The silhouette of a sprawling tree dominates the background, calling to mind the song "Strange Fruit" and presaging the lynching to come.
Other silhouettes play poignant roles: A chain gang labors at back-breaking work as a bitter convict seeks to sabotage Gov. Slaton's investigation; a flashback fills in a missing piece of information that underscores the burning injustice of the case.
DeMita also serves as lighting designer, and the blood-red lighting scheme that often douses the screen at the back of the performance space speaks of the bloodlust burning in the hearts of the community's members.
Tina Cerosimo's costuming is just as strong a visual and thematic element here as either the set design or the music; she dresses the cast (pared down to 15 actors from the original Broadway play, which employed three times that many) in garb that states for us not only where and when we find ourselves, but also who these people are. Those 15 actors play 27 roles; their costumes serve as another tool for defining the multiple characters they portray.
Small theater such as this provides experiential proof, time and again, of how good stories, well told, trump lavish budgets time after time. Don't get me wrong; I love elaborate sets and the bells and whistles that a well-funded production can afford. But a story like this one, with a cast, orchestra, and director like these, is the essence of theater. This play feels important, topical, and urgent, despite its events having transpired a century ago. We've made progress -- but maybe not as much as we like to think.
’Parade’ continues through Oct. 20 at the Arsenal for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown.
Performance schedule: 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18; Friday, Oct, 19; and Saturday, Oct. 20. Tickets and more information available online at http://www.fudgetheatre.com/