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This article appeared Oct. 22, 1997

Uhry's Atlanta tragedy
Playwright's new musical recalls
notorious 1915 lynching of Leo Frank

By Dan Hulbert
Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Toronto - Alfred Uhry has come to this gleaming Canadian city of ethnic harmony to work on a musical drama about murder, bigotry, sex, lies and politics in a bygone Atlanta.

John Lehamann / Special to AJC
Alfred Uhry, shown in Toronto, where he's working on his new play, has won a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a Tony for works about Jewish life in Atlanta.
The kicker is that it's a labor of love. The love that Uhry feels for his hometown "runs deep in this production," says the playwright-screenwriter ("Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"), sitting in a French cafe on a quiet street lined with Toronto's fabled maple trees, ablaze with October color. "I'm writing about noble people, tragic figures. What breaks my heart is that their genuine pain and love for Georgia was manipulated by a few evil men."

The "tragic figures" of whom Uhry speaks include not only Leo Frank - the Jewish pencil factory manager from New York who was convicted on flimsy evidence of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee - and Jim Conley, the black janitor who falsely accused him. (Frank was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986 by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.)

Uhry's sympathy also extends to the white Christians who danced in the streets after the verdict, seeing Frank as a symbol of tight-fisted Northern capitalists. And Uhry admires Gov. John M. Slaton, who in 1915 ordered that Frank be retried, only to have an angry mob attack his mansion while a contingent from Marietta (Mary's hometown) kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him from a tree in Cobb County.

The men Uhry brands as evil include Tom Watson, editor of an anti-Semitic hate sheet, The Jeffersonian, and a future U.S. senator from Georgia. Like a demonic fiddler, Watson played upon heartstrings still raw from the Civil War and ignited a press circus whose luridness was worthy of the 1990s.

All of them play roles in "Parade," Uhry's musical drama in progress. The title drips with irony, referring to the Confederate Memorial Day Parade that was in progress at the precise moment Mary was strangled after, it is suspected, being raped. The production had a closed workshop last week and will open in the spring in Toronto, headquarters for Broadway producer Garth Drabinsky ("Show Boat," "Ragtime"). It's slated to move to New York next fall.

Uhry, 60, has wanted to write about the Frank case all his life.

"All of us who were Jewish in Atlanta grew up under that cloud," the playwright says. "I wanted to find out why. Why? How could such a thing happen? But the reaction always was, 'Oh, God, don't talk about that!' And of course that's why I had to learn more. That's why kids play on the living room floor: to listen in on the grown-ups."

Like "Daisy" and "Ballyhoo," "Parade" is a chapter of Atlanta history that's also the history of the German-Jewish community of which the Uhrys are still prominent members.

The writer's great uncle Sigmund Montag owned the pencil factory and organized Frank's defense. (One of Uhry's first questions, upon learning that fellow playwright David Mamet has just published a novel about the Frank case, was, "Does he mention Uncle Sig?" He doesn't.) Uhry's cousin Herbert Haas was one of Frank's defense attorneys. From his youth in the 1940s, Uhry remembers Frank's widow, the former Lucille Selig of his Druid Hills circle, "a kind of spooky older lady who always signed her checks 'Mrs. Leo M. Frank.' "

The idea for a Frank musical was born three years ago while Uhry was telling Hal Prince, the great Broadway director ("Phantom of the Opera"), about his idea for his Olympic Arts Festival play, "Ballyhoo."

"To explain the 'Ballyhoo' characters I needed to go into the background of the Leo Frank case, and Hal said, 'What's the Leo Frank case?' So I told him, and he said (slapping his palm on the restaurant table): 'That's it! That's our musical!' "

(Neither Prince nor Drabinsky would speak about the closely guarded workshop. The touchiness stems partly from a premature negative review of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" that an uninvited New York critic wrote during the same team's workshop process a decade ago.)

As if anti-Semitism and anti-Yankee sentiments weren't enough to cover in one musical - "No one ever claimed it was a musical comedy," Uhry cracks - there is also bound to be controversy about race. "I'm used to it," Uhry says sardonically, referring to the flak he received over his portrayal of the black-white relationship in "Daisy." The Frank court transcripts are full of racism - even one of Frank's lawyers refers to Conley, the janitor, as "a great black spider . . . a lustful animal." Mamet's novel, "The Old Religion," takes the view that Conley was clearly guilty but escaped the noose by cunningly playing upon the jury's anti-Semitism.

Uhry: "We don't say that Conley did it - certainly there's strong evidence that he did. Jim Conley was treated like a dog all his life. Perhaps here was this girl with a dollar in her pay envelope, walking through an empty factory, so he took it and he killed her. I don't condone the murder, but I understand the rage.

"This is a story full of tragedies," Uhry observes. "Mary Phagan was a victim. Leo Frank was a victim. Jim Conley was a victim. The first tragedy was the sufferings of Georgians after the Civil War. Their land was raped and looted, families were forced off farms and had to send their kids to work in the factories. And here was this strange-looking Jewish Yankee who became a symbol of everything encroaching on the Old Southern dream of living free. They couldn't just string up another black man - that wouldn't be enough. Someone else had to pay for Mary's death."

Uhry, who had an ancestor in the Confederate Army ("a blockade runner, just like Rhett Butler"), stressed these ideas to songwriter Jason Robert Brown, a 27-year-old New Yorker: "I told Jason that as a Southerner, it's important to me that the angry whites don't come across as idiot rednecks." He showed Brown a picture of Mary's gravestone in Marietta, with the inscription, "She will always be remembered in the old red hills of Georgia." A few days later Brown came back with a hymn, "The Old Red Hills of Georgia."

"God, what a song," says Uhry, sitting 1,000 miles from his native soil but still, somehow, there. "I get a lump in my throat now just thinking about it."

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