Theater reviewIt is an uncomfortable America where racism goes unchecked

Powerful musical recounts Atlanta lynching of falsely accused Jewish man

A century after the murder of Leo Frank, ‘Parade’ — now staged in Chicago — is a devastatingly relevant piece of drama

Patrick Andrews and Brianna Borger in 'Parade.' (Michael Brosilow)
Patrick Andrews and Brianna Borger in 'Parade.' (Michael Brosilow)

CHICAGO — Chicagoland theater goers have a must-see play in their midst. Even a century after the events that inspired it, the suburban Writers Theatre‘s new production of Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Tony Award winning show “Parade” is still a devastatingly relevant piece of drama.

This 1998 musical is based on the early 20th century trial and lynching of Leo Frank (Patrick Andrews), a dapper Jewish Brooklynite living in Atlanta. In 1913, Frank is falsely accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Caroline Heffernan), an employee at the National Pencil Factory, where he is her supervisor.

Frank is innocent, but makes for a convenient target. Governor John Slaton (Derek Hasenstab) and prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Kevin Gudahl) salivate over the thought of convicting “the Jew.” Pandering to an anti-Semitic constituency, a conviction would be a feather in their political caps.

Slimy prosecutor Dorsey coaches witnesses to lie under oath, which they do in spades. Ultimately, the jury, the public, politicians and the media are all complicit in a brutal anti-Semitic character assassination, which leads to a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Frank. The court rejoices in glee amongst a chorus of “hang the Jew.”

Frank’s wife Lucille (Brianna Borger) plays a pivotal role in awakening governor Slaton’s consciousness. Reopening the case, Slaton commutes Frank’s sentence to life in prison, with an indication that Leo will eventually be freed. However, others have different plans — a lynch mob drags Frank from the jail in a violent misappropriation of justice.

“Parade” paints an uncomfortable southern America where racism and anti-Semitism go unchecked. Jews become a scapegoat for class issues and blacks try to keep themselves safe by any means necessary. Nicole Michelle Haskins and Jonah D. Winston play two black servants who, in the song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin,” reflect on the northern outcry against Frank’s lynching, and the contrasted silence when it comes to the murder of black men.

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and cast in 'Parade.' (Michael Brosilow)
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and cast in ‘Parade.’ (Michael Brosilow)

Director Gary Griffin has elicited brilliant performances from this first-rate cast. Coupled with Michael Mahler’s breathtaking musical direction this leads to a powerful and heartbreaking theatrical experience. Of particular note is Jim Conley (Jonathan Butler-DuPlessis) who steals the show with his heavenly voice.

The stage is sparse, flanked by a Southern style balcony adorned with red, white, and blue bunting. The Confederate and American flags are draped side by side on the back wall. Creative usages of lighting adorn the stage. Shadowy bars fall across Leo as he lies in his prison bed. A rectangle of light is used to represent slain Mary Phagan’s coffin.

According to the play’s notes, “Parade” is based on one of the first highly publicized cases of anti-Semitism in the United States. One hundred years later with anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism still on the rise, the play is eerily prescient.

“Parade” is the final production of Writers Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Season. The show has been extended through July 9. Tickets and information can be found here.

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