Broadway’s Tony-winning Parade revival, running until August 6, might seem neatly tailored to our times: in an era of heightened anti-Semitism, the 1998 musical tells the true story of a transplanted Brooklyn Jew, Leo Frank, accused in 1913 by his new home state, Georgia, of the sexually motivated murder of a teenage girl. The death-penalty trial and subsequent events are driven not by a fact-based pursuit of justice but by a political need to hand over an outsider scapegoat to a mob. Notwithstanding the band of neo-Nazis who showed up to protest the opening this spring, the tale appears not to ruffle any proper progressive sensibilities. But the production, in many subtle ways, does. The writers and actors admirably refrain from reducing any character, however sympathetic or unsympathetic on paper, to a reductive racial stereotype for the post-“#MeToo,” post-George Floyd era: that is, white people privileged and bad, black people victimized, with no control over their individual destinies.
Though Parade is the story of Leo (Ben Platt), his wife Lucille (Micaela Diamond) is the protagonist who pushes the plot forward. Lucille is a plucky heroine, overcoming her initial horror at the charges her husband faces to hound Georgia politicians and prosecutors for justice. But Lucille is also, the play makes clear, a post-bellum southern woman. She barely registers the constant presence of her black servant, Minnie McKnight (Danielle Lee Graves), treating her like the slave she would have been not even a half-century earlier. When, in one household scene, Leo tells Lucille that she has dropped a sewing pin, Lucille accepts her husband’s observation as a regrettable faux pas on the part of a brand-new husband. A southern lady is not expected to bend down to pick up for herself; Minnie will do it, without being asked. The audience is expected to be intelligent enough to see that Lucille can be both a courageous person and a flawed human being who doesn’t question or even notice the racial hierarchy she was born into. The bad aspects of her character do not entirely erase—or even much eclipse—the good.
This multifaceted approach holds true with Georgia’s Governor Slaton (Sean Allan Krill). From glorifying the Confederacy to appealing to voters’ prejudices, Slaton is what you would expect from a southern governor two generations after the Civil War. But the show resists the temptation to cast him entirely as evil. Facing a tough decision over Leo’s fate, he makes the right decision, even though it costs him politically. His own wife, another central-casting southern belle, stands by him in this choice. Parade’s southerners are not uniformly evil.
The show is equally subtle in its treatment of the teenage girls who work at the Atlanta pencil factory alongside Mary Phagan, the murdered 13-year-old. Yes, a politically motivated, deep-south prosecutor heavily coaches them to accuse Leo, their Jewish boss, of behavior ranging from the creepy to the unlawful, as evidence that he killed Mary. Parade could have rested on this external source to justify making an exception to the post-#MeToo “believe all women” (and presumably teenage girls) mantra. But the staging makes clear that these girls are not suggestible, tender blooms who have fallen victim to adult anti-Semitism. They willfully, and even enthusiastically, participate in condemning Leo, and it’s clear that their sole motivation isn’t prejudice. They just hate working all day at a sweatshop for pennies an hour, and they don’t mind the idea of their boss hanging. Like Lucille, they are real people with their own complex impulses and motivations; they are not cartoonish stand-ins for mere ideas.
Most daring is the show’s treatment of its black characters: they, too, are complex, and differ in their levels of morality and culpability in Frank’s fate. One suspect in Mary’s death, Newt Lee (Eddie Cooper) is quietly, and successfully, resistant: he recites Bible verses to withstand intense prosecutorial pressure to make a false confession. Minnie, the Franks’ maid, is, like the white teenage girls, a whole person: yes, she faces coercion to testify against her employer, but like the girls, she doesn’t seem to mind doing it; she’s getting her own petty, human revenge after having stood in the corner unseen for so many years.
Parade takes the most risk with Jim Conley, a black man who also worked at the pencil factory. Parade heavily hints that Conley helps to frame Leo not because he is unduly pressured, or because he is after a little rough justice against white people. He may have something serious to hide himself.
More than a century after Leo Frank’s ordeal, we don’t know who killed Mary Phagan, and we never will, not by any acceptable legal standard. That we know that it most likely wasn’t Leo doesn’t mean that we can be certain of any suspect, who, because of the railroading of Leo, never faced the scrutiny of a trial. So Parade rightly doesn’t go too far in this implication; to slander a black man is not an improvement over slandering a Jew. Still, even to hint, as Parade does, that a black man adjacent to a violent crime against a white woman might have his own reasons to mislead white officials constitutes a bold transgression against modern progressive orthodoxy—bolder, even, than hinting, as Parade also does, that teenage girls might lie about being victims of sexual attention.
Trusting its audience, Parade portrays white southerners, Jews, and black men and women as human beings—good, bad, and in-between—without trigger warnings or contextual disclaimers. Every character here is a real person, not a past or present-day racial or gender stereotype, and this quality makes the show something unusual on Broadway these days: riveting from start to finish.
Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage