Georgia on His Mind

Alfred Uhry's Parade tells a tale of Reconstruction that's grounded in fact

Parade The Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square October 18-29

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Inmates doing hard time in Alfred Uhry's Parade.
Inmates doing hard time in Alfred Uhry's Parade.
Of the thousands of lynchings that took place in the South after the Civil War, one case still haunts Confederate sensibilities. It doesn't stand out because the victim was white or because he was hanged on a sheriff's property. The thing about the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank -- retold in the musical Parade, which opens Wednesday at the Palace Theatre -- is that it came to symbolize both sides of the Reconstruction: those who felt the South would rise again, and those who felt the South should move on.

"You've got to remember, the South was defeated," says Alfred Uhry, who wrote Parade and also Driving Miss Daisy. "They felt about the North sort of the way the Europeans feel about the Nazis now, and unfortunately poor ol' Leo ended up paying for a lot of it."

The crime that led to the lynching was the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee of an Atlanta factory where Frank -- a Northern Jew -- was a manager. On Confederate Memorial Day, she went to the factory to collect her pay, but wound up dead. Frank, who had been at the factory that day, was hastily convicted.

"They had to find something special for this, because it was such a heinous crime," explains Uhry dryly. "So they found a Jew."

But Uhry's connection to the case isn't simply that he was raised in Atlanta, where the affair played out, or because he, like Frank, was a Jew living in the South. Uhry's connection is more personal: "I've dealt with the story all my life, because the murder happened in a factory owned by my mother's uncle."

In hindsight, he sees the musical as a chance to get the lynching of an innocent man off his chest and into the open. "The Atlanta now and the Atlanta then are like different planets, but there are still people who think the Jew did it," he says. "It was important for me to show both sides -- to show not the anti-Semitism so much as the deeply felt patriotism about the South and how that was perverted by a couple of politicians."

Even so, to Uhry, the love that deepened between Frank and his wife during the two years Frank spent in jail, before being kidnapped from his cell and lynched, made the tale unique. "The fact that he and his wife managed to fall in love with each other during all this adversity, I find very moving," says Uhry. "It's just such a damn good story. It's got everything. It's a story about the seeds sown by loss."

Because of that, it even received a "hollering ovation" when it opened in Atlanta. "I loved the South I grew up in. I love Georgia," says Uhry. "And yet I was an outsider, because I was a Jew. I knew that the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on Jewish lawns -- there was always that bogeyman that was out there."

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