July 14, 2023

Leo Frank and 'Parade': When theater and reality overlap - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I was in Manhattan as New York celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks over the East River, together with tens of thousands of New Yorkers and tourists, representing the plethora of ethnicities and languages in New York. All rushed to the river banks to watch America’s spectacular 247th birthday show.

The following day, I was brought into contact with a different side of America while attending the revival of the Broadway musical Parade at the 96-year-old Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The theater is named after the late Jewish Harlem-born, long-time president of the Shubert theater organization. On the Jacobs stage, Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond were the first Jewish actors to portray Leo and Lucille Frank. No relation to Anne Frank.

The musical is based on a book by Alfred Fox Uhry, the Jewish playwright who also wrote Driving Miss Daisy. The central theme takes place, not on July 4 but on April 26: Confederate Memorial Day. Certain southern states continue to mark the anniversary of when the major Confederate field army surrendered at Bennett Place, North Carolina, in 1865.

Parade opens during the Civil War. A soldier parts from his lover to join Confederate troops as a haunting ballad is sung, nostalgic for the rushing of the Chattahoochee River and the “purity” of the red hills of Georgia. “Let all the blood of the North spill upon them, ’Til they’ve paid for what they’ve wrought, taken back the lies they’ve taught.”

Then the scene shifts forward 48 years. The soldier is old and battered. Georgia is celebrating Confederate Memorial Day with the Confederate flag unfurled.

Leo Frank, a Jewish Cornell-graduate engineer from the North, doesn’t want to share a Memorial Day picnic with his wife. Instead, he heads to the factory he runs to catch up on his work.

THIS IS theater, but the story is real enough. Leo Max Frank went south to Atlanta at the urging of his wealthy uncle Moses Frank, to develop the American Pencil Factory in which the uncle invested. The South was becoming more industrialized, resented by some.

The real Leo Frank prepared for this job by studying pencil-making in Germany. He worked his way up doing various jobs to become superintendent of the large factory. He married Lucille Selig, a Jewish Georgian from a prominent Atlanta family. He became president of the local B’nai B’rith chapter.

On that fateful Confederate Memorial Day, the battered body of a 13-year-old employee named Mary Phagan, whose job was to attach erasers, was found in the factory. Frank was indicted for murder, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged. During the trial, cries of “Hang the Jew” sounded outside the courthouse.

The trial made national news. Court appeals were unsuccessful. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Jane Addams were among those who spoke in Frank’s defense. Georgia governor John M. Slaton, at the cost of his career, commuted Frank’s sentence to life, certain that he would eventually be released when the truth [of his innocence] came out.

Five thousand people protested outside the governor’s mansion and had to be held back by police from storming it. Jewish families fled Atlanta.

Local vigilantes who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Leo Frank from prison, drove him 100 miles to Marietta, Georgia, and hanged him.

The Broadway musical portrays the tragic events of the story. Projections on the back curtains display real photographs of the events and the setting so that history and theater overlap.

The Leo Frank case reignited the nefarious Ku Klux Klan. It also strengthened the creation of the American Defamation League.

I GREW up in Connecticut, where we had a deep appreciation of American history. But not in school nor in my years in Hebrew school or the Young Judaea youth movement did I ever hear of this antisemitic chapter of American Jewish history.

Nor, before seeing the play, did I realize that in real life, 110 years after the trial, the Leo Frank case isn’t closed.

In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Frank, without finding him innocent. They only judged that his being hanged truncated his rights to future appeals.

In 2019, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard formed an eight-member panel called the Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate the case and make recommendations on whether it should be re-adjudicated.

Type “Leo Frank” in your search engine, and you’ll find current white supremacist propaganda debasing Leo Frank and the failed Jewish resources that tried to help him prove his innocence.

At the Jacobs Theatre, in an unusual gesture, Parade star Ben Platt stays on stage during the 15-minute intermission between acts. In an April interview in Playbill, the magazine distributed in theaters, Platt explained why.

“It’s a way I can pay homage to Leo nightly. It’s a very ritualistic thing for me. He has become this symbol and martyr, but that 15 minutes is the moment every night where I can remember that this was a man who was, for the last two years of his life, stuck in a room by himself, then wrongfully murdered. It just personifies him for me and never lets his story get too big or too far in my head.”

Michaela Diamond, who plays Lucille Frank, said in the same Playbill interview: “Parade fits in a unique place in the Broadway canon because it’s not about the Holocaust or the Jewish Diaspora. It’s just about a very specific American hatred for Jews.”

Indeed, in February 2023, neo-Nazis protested and harassed theater-goers at the Jacobs Theatre before the preview performance of the Parade revival.

Onstage, as Leo Frank, the character, is about to be hanged, he is allowed one last statement. I brace myself. I sense what is coming. The Jewish pledge of allegiance.

Using the melody that echoes the opening “Old Red Hills of Georgia” song and not the traditional tune, Platt sings out: Shema Yisrael, hashem elokeinu hashem ahad (Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One). And then, slowly and forcefully, he adds the second line: Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed (Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever).

The audience isn’t as varied as the crowds at theFourth of Julyfireworks, but it’s certainly not all Jewish. I wonder what the non-Jewish make of these potent Hebrew words.

For me, they resonate long after the curtain closes.