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This article appeared Nov. 1, 1998

Uhry opposes an Atlanta premiere

By Dan Hulbert
Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

When the producers of "Parade" were negotiating with the Alliance Theatre about collaborating on a world premiere, one member of the musical's company was dead-set against unveiling the production in the city where its tense, turbulent saga took place in the early 1900s. That person was Atlanta-born Alfred Uhry, writer of the musical's book, and he had good reason for caution.

"There are still people around Atlanta who are descended from players in the story," Uhry said. "The skin is still raw on these wounds - not everyone agrees that Leo Frank was innocent of the murder of Mary Phagan (Frank, a Jew, was posthumously pardoned by the state of Georgia in 1986). The show's reception might be distorted by factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the show."

The negotiations with the Alliance fell through - "Parade" is instead premiering in New York - and Uhry says it's just as well. He predicts that at least one local observer, Tom Watson Brown, won't like "Parade," since his great-grandfather, newspaper publisher Tom Watson (later a U.S. senator from Georgia), is the musical's chief villain. Watson wrote in his weekly newspaper, The Jeffersonian: "We will make certain that no other Georgia girl will die a horrible death defending her virtue from a rich depraved sodomite Jew." Statements similar to this are cited in "Parade" and have been blamed for inciting the vigilantes who dragged Frank from prison before he could be re-tried and lynched him from a tree in Marietta, near Mary Phagan's birthplace.

Brown has heard about "Parade," and the Marietta lawyer is indeed not pleased.

"I expect that it will be a false presentation," Brown says. "I have no confidence that it will have any more basis in fact than the TV movie ("The Murder of Mary Phagan") a few years ago. I am of the same opinion of the jury that found Frank guilty."

When Brown was asked if he plans to see the show in New York, he replied, "Why, to enjoy the music? I think not."

Melissa Fay Greene, whose writings reflect an Atlanta Jewish community still shaken by the Frank case, says, "I'm excited that Alfred's writing about the case because he'll bring well-rounded portraits; it won't be The Jew vs. The Faceless Mob as David Mamet portrayed it (in his 1997 novel, 'The Old Religion'). And there's such a rise in hate crimes right now."

Some prominent Atlanta Jews are dismayed, however, to see the Frank case resurrected - especially in the form of a Broadway show. Former Mayor Sam Massell, director of the Buckhead Coalition, says, "There's some apprehension in the Jewish community as to whether it might rekindle anti-Semitism. And can the subject really be treated in a musical?"

Bill Breman, whose Jewish heritage museum shows a film documentary on the Frank case, was 5 years old during Frank's trial: "My father was told to stay indoors until the trial was over because he looked something like Frank. That's how dangerous the times were." Breman says of "Parade": "I'd rather not see this laundry washed in public; it only brings up bad memories."

Uhry, for his part, stresses his effort, "to explore the history from all sides. I try very hard for a fair portrayal of white Southern Christians. There's an inscription on Mary Phagan's gravestone (in a Marietta cemetery), and we use it in a song: "Her heroism is an heirloom . . . among the old red hills of Georgia."

Though the inscription is a coded condemnation of Frank, Uhry believes, "I get choked up reading it, because I'm not only a Jew, I'm also a Southerner."

Hearing of this, Brown says with a chuckle, "Mr. Uhry will be surprised to learn that the man who wrote those words was Tom Watson."

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