January 8, 1999

Atlanta Jews cringe at musical on infamous lynching

CURT SCHLEIER

Bulletin Correspondent

There was talk earlier in 1998 of premiering "Parade" in Atlanta, where it is set. But playwright Alfred Uhry was dead against it, and so were members of Atlanta's Jewish community.

So, instead, it opened in New York's Vivian Beaumont Theater in mid-December.

"Parade" is a musical -- yes, a musical -- about Leo Frank. Falsely accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl in 1913, the Jewish factory manager in Atlanta went through a sham trial and was sentenced to hang. When that injustice provoked an international outcry, the sentence was commuted to life by Gov. John W. Slaton. Shortly thereafter, a mob dragged Frank from his prison cell and lynched him.

Though these ugly incidents occurred decades ago, among Atlanta Jews there remains a let-sleeping-dogs-lie mentality about them.

Bill Breman, who runs an Atlanta Jewish museum, was 5 years old at the time. "My father was told to stay indoors until the trial was over, because he looked something like Frank," he told the Atlanta Journal & Constitution. "That's how dangerous the times were. I'd rather not see this laundry washed up again."

Breman isn't alone. Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell expressed similar sentiments: "There's some apprehension in the Jewish community as to whether it might rekindle anti-Semitism."

This attitude does not surprise Uhry. In the aftermath of the case, he notes, there was an outbreak of virulent anti-Semitism: shop windows broken, Jews beaten.

Suddenly, he says, a "group of Southern Jews were disenfranchised. They weren't Southern anymore," they were just Jews. And the prevailing sentiment seems to have been (and remains) less a defiant "never again," than a whispered, "maybe if we don't bring it up it won't come back."

"The subject was taboo when I was a child," Uhry says. "It was too horrific. It involved matters of sex and things people didn't want to talk about."

Compounding his family's sensitivities was its personal involvement in the situation. Uhry's great-uncle owned the pencil plant where Frank and the young girl Mary Phagan worked. Uhry's grandmother -- the woman immortalized in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Driving Miss Daisy" -- brought Frank food in prison and was very friendly with Frank's widow.

Ironically, it was his family's reticence about the subject that drew Uhry to it. "I was fascinated," he says. "The more I read the more it seemed like such a dramatic thing."

After deciding to go forward on the project, he brought in 28-year-old composer Jason Robert Brown, (this is his first Broadway production) and they set to work.

Theatergoers expecting a condemnation of rednecks, a paean to the memory of Leo Frank, will be disappointed. One of Uhry's goals was to be fair. After all, he told The Jewish Week in a recent phone conversation, "I'm Southern."

As for providing a message, something for theatergoers to think about as they leave Lincoln Center, he replies: "I want them to have been entertained for the time they are there. I don't think I'm in the business of telling people what to think. They might think about hate crimes and the dangers of jingoism, but messages are not what interests me. All I want is to move people while they're there."

Unfortunately, this desire to be fair to all, to provide an entertainment without point of view, drains "Parade" of passion.

Frank, the victim at its center, comes across unsympathetically. "He was a Yankee, persnickety, a man who was easy to dislike," Uhry says. And in that regard, Brent Carver plays him perfectly.

So those in search of a hero are left with Gov. Slaton, who sacrificed a promising political career to do what he felt was right, or Leo's wife, Lucille, who continued to battle for him.

However, Slaton (John Hickok) is a minor role. And while Carolee Carmello offers a bravura performance as Lucille, she is not sufficiently at center stage to anchor the production.

The music in "Parade" is good, but uneven.

Ironically, the most inspired of the melodies are devoted not to the plight of Frank, but in praise of the South. For example, "The Old Red Hills of Home" and the anthem "The Dream of Atlanta," sung at the Confederate Memorial Day Parade (which gives the play its title) soar.

And while Leo Frank might seem an unlikely subject for a musical, "Parade" is not that offbeat.

The best musical last season -- though it didn't fare well commercially -- was "Side Show," about Siamese twins. Before that, "Rent," about HIV-positive gay and straight inhabitants of the East Village, won a Pulitzer and is still playing to near capacity crowds every night. Both productions, however, expressed a strong point of view: that life in whatever form is worth living.

"Parade," on the other hand, leaves viewers puzzled -- in search of a meaning to these two needless deaths.

The mixed emotions Uhry brings to his writing is not surprising. He grew up in a prosperous Atlanta German-Jewish family amidst surroundings that were genteel, and gentile. His family was Christmas tree, Easter egg-hunting assimilated, in search of that elusive acceptance. Yes, Uhry remembers being picked on by young toughs, being called a dirty Jew, a kike. "But I don't remember telling her [his mother]. It seemed like a cross I had to bear."

An interesting choice of words for a man who never attended a bar mitzvah as a youngster, let alone had one. Before coming to New York, he'd attended only one seder in his life.

He married and raised four daughters outside the faith.

Professionally, he enjoyed a modicum of success -- he received a Tony Award nomination for "The Robber Bridegroom" -- but felt there was a void in his life where his Judaism should have been.

The turning point came when he went to Israel with Manny Azenberg, who with missionary zeal regularly takes theater folk to the Holy Land.

"I went with him twice. The first time...I guess it had been creeping up on me what I had missed."

He adds that while he "regrets not being brought up more Jewish, I had a wonderful childhood. I was loved and encouraged to write.

Still, Uhry concedes he probably would not have his current success if he didn't come to grips with his own Jewishness. "I certainly couldn't have written this," he says about "Parade."

"Couldn't have written any of them. Daisy was the beginning of my working it out."

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