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Songs of the south
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Songs of the south

Musical drama recalls anti-Semitism in Atlanta a century ago

As a group of young people march behind him waving United States and Confederate flags, an actor portraying Leo Frank steps to the front of the stage and sings:

“These men belong in zoos.

It’s like they never joined civilization.

The Jews are not like Jews.

I thought the Jews were Jews, but I was wrong.

I thought it would be fine, but four years down the line with every word it’s very clear I don’t belong.

I don’t cuss.

I don’t drawl.

So how can I call this home?”

He is the lead character in Parade, a musical drama based on grim historical reality.

Leo Frank was the only Jew in American history to have been murdered by a lynch mob. His brutal death came at the end of a controversial case which triggered both the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.

Born in Texas in 1884 and raised in Brooklyn, Frank moved to Atlanta in 1908 to become the manager of the National Pencil Company. Although his wife Lucille would have preferred that he had a lower profile as a Jew, Frank spoke Yiddish and was president of the Atlanta chapter of B’nai B’rith.

As local residents paraded in celebration of Confederate Memorial Day on April 26, 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan was being sexually assaulted and strangled in the pencil factory’s basement. Historians believe that a janitor — not Frank — was the culprit, but Atlantans were all too willing to blame the college-educated Jewish northerner for her death.

Four months after Phagan’s gruesome murder, Frank was found guilty. But when Georgia’s governor commuted his death sentence in 1915, an angry mob believed to be tied to the Klan — one that included a Methodist minister, a former governor, a state legislator, and a former state Superior Court judge — kidnapped Frank from prison. He was hanged from a tree, then stomped upon by members of the crowd.

‘Make a statement’

In 1988, the story of Leo Frank was retold in Parade, written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Parade closed at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center after only 84 performances.

But as of June 8 it is being revived at the Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield by 4th Wall Theatre, which delights in performing “plays that make a statement,” according to Bruce McCandless, the company’s business manager and publicity director. “Parade is the story of an injustice done and what it says about society,” he told NJ Jewish News.

“I think there are a million Leo Franks,” said director Bob Cline moments before beginning rehearsal. “I don’t know if they are black or if they are Jewish or if they are gay. But what I do know is there are suppressed groups and people who are wrongly accused at the time.”

“Being Jewish affected my performance because the part fits like a glove for me,” said Danny Arnold, who plays Frank. Having grown up in the Reform congregation of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, Arnold told NJJN in a backstage interview he “can absolutely relate — but not with the anti-Semitism. I’ve been lucky not to have experienced that much.

“But I was able to easily put myself in Leo’s shoes,” Arnold said. “I could picture myself going somewhere where there aren’t a lot of Jewish people. In the world today there is anti-Semitism all the time and racism all the time; I was able to bring those things together.”

Frank’s lynching near the end of the play “adds to the emotional toll that it takes on me.”

Arnold’s wife, Sandy Taylor, who plays the part of Frank’s wife, Lucille, sings a song at her husband’s gravesite.

Arnold said, “That really gets her. She says when the actor is actually someone you care for and are married to, it makes it easier to pretend and get lost in the role.”

David Simon plays Britt Craig, a newspaper reporter who covered the trial.

“Being Jewish, I like the fact that this play tells a famous story of anti-Semitism,” he said. “But it also speaks on a broader level to the intolerance and hate you see today in very different ways. It is not just a period piece.”

Through a boyhood connection with the composer, Simon was able to overcome legal hurdles to allow 4th Wall to produce Parade. He and Brown learned their craft as campers at the French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in the Catskills.

“When I heard 4th Wall was denied the rights, I e-mailed Jason and said, ‘Hey, can you check into it and see why?’” said Simon. “Jason put in a call, and the next day we were granted the rights.”

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