Like many students of Jewish American history, Alfred Uhry was drawn to the story of Leo Frank, the Atlanta pencil factory manager who, in a trial condemned across the country for its lack of due process and impartiality, was convicted in 1913 of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee at the factory.
But Uhry’s interest in the case was more than simple historical fascination. The 76-year-old playwright, one of a handful of people to have won a Pulitzer, a Tony and an Oscar, had a deep personal connection to this dark moment for American Jewry in the 20th century. His great-uncle, Sigmonde, owned the National Pencil Factory, where both Frank and Phagan worked, and his grandmother was friends with Frank’s wife, Lucille.
“My family was deeply involved in the Frank case,” Uhry said during a phone interview from his home in New York City. He recalled that during his Atlanta childhood, his family scrupulously avoided discussing anything related to Frank. “People were ashamed of the whole situation. Anytime I ever mentioned Leo Frank in my family, the older people would get up and walk out of the room.”
That only piqued Uhry’s interest in the story of what happened to Frank, a college-educated New York Jew put in charge of a workplace full of uneducated Southerners still seething at their treatment at the hands of Union soldiers and the federal government during the Civil War and its aftermath. He turned it into Parade, the final play in his “Atlanta Trilogy,” which includes Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo. “To be able to deal with this subject that was never, ever discussed in my household — I always knew I wanted to write about it,” Uhry said of his show, which opens locally Sept. 26 at the Arden Theater.
Uhry said that it was during the premiere run of The Last Night of Ballyhoo in 1996 that his vision for a play about the Frank incident began to coalesce. His friend and colleague, Broadway legend Hal Prince, was in attendance at the play, which is set in Atlanta’s Jewish community in 1939, just as Hitler has conquered Poland and the film version of Gone with the Wind is about to premiere.
“Hal asked me, ‘Why are these Jews so anti-Semitic?’ I said it probably had to do with the Leo Frank case. I told him about the case — he put his glasses up on his head and said, ‘You know what, that is a musical.’ I got chills as I thought, ‘You know, he’s right.’ ”
When asked if Prince’s recommendation to make a musical about murder, miscarriages of justice and Frank’s lynching at the hands of a mob didn’t seem to be an unusual choice, Uhry laughed. “It did, but I knew what he meant. I knew he didn’t mean the type of Mary Poppins skip-and-wave musical. He meant something serious that would explore the roots of it, and I knew it was something I needed to write. I needed to deal with my own issues.”
Uhry explained that he used the play, which draws its title from the fact that Phagan’s murder happened on Confederate Memorial Day — which always featured a parade — as a way to deal with his own complicated relationship with Judaism. Growing up as a Reform Jew in Atlanta in the decades following the Frank incident, which led to the creation of the Anti-Defamation League (as well as a revival of the Ku Klux Klan), meant assimilation to the point that he never went to a seder, never had a Bar Mitzvah and never learned Hebrew.
“I was brought up,” he said, feeling that Judaism “is something we had to deal with, like being lame or having some sort of disfigurement. There was no sense of pride. We belonged to a temple so Reform that there was no cantor, no Jewish music — the choir was the same choir that sang across the street at the Methodist church. Writing the play helped me deal with all of that and come to terms with who I am.”
Just as it took Uhry some time to come to terms with who he was, Parade was slow to gain acceptance as well. Despite winning 1999 Tony awards for Best Book and Best Original Score, the show closed after just 84 performances at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. While it was sent out on a national tour in 2000 — opening in Uhry’s hometown — it languished until a major revival, featuring extensive reworking of the play by Uhry and composer Jason Robert Brown, opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2007.
The revival, with a leaner set and fewer cast members, became a critical and commercial success, and is the version that will be onstage at the Arden. “I’m prouder of this play than anything else I’ve ever done,” Uhry said. “When we got to do it the second time around, I really understood how those non-Jewish Southerners felt. They lost the war, they lost their livelihood, their children had to work in factories.”
A century later, Frank’s story is still being told, not just onstage but at institutions like the National Museum of American Jewish History, which displays an extensive collection of artifacts related to the Frank trial in its permanent collection, as well as a film about the incident narrated by Uhry.
Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the museum, said it was only natural to partner with the Arden for collaborative events like post-performance talkbacks and reduced admissions to both the museum and the Arden during the play’s run. “What Uhry has done is to tell a story of violence, of racism,” he said. “It is one that we deserve to be told because it brings together so many strands of American history.”
Uhry understands the impact Parade can have on people unaware of the full scope of what happened, but education is not his main goal. “I’m not trying to give a history lesson,” he said. “I’m trying to tell a good story.”
We really don’t want this Parade to pass you by, so we are giving away tickets to see the show. Send your information to: [email protected] . Winners will be chosen at random and notified by email.
Sept. 26 to Nov. 3
40 N. Second St., Philadelphia