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The fraught, provocative identity politics of Parade

How Parade deconstructs the multi-layered tragedy of the lynching of Leo Frank.

Figures dance on top of a raised wooden platform. One man in the center is spotlit and clutching a newspaper. Images from a historical newspaper are projected onto the background.
Jay Armstrong Johnson, center, as reporter Britt Craig, with the company of Parade.
Joan Marcus
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When the Broadway musical Parade began its previews this February, it was met with neo-Nazi protesters. As ticket-holders lined up outside the door, about a dozen masked figures waved signs and tried to distribute antisemitic pamphlets.

“You’re about to pay $300 to go in there and worship a fucking pedophile,” said one.

The neo-Nazis felt compelled to protest because, it seems, Parade, which was first produced on Broadway in 1998 and is now scheduled to run in revival through early August, is about a historical antisemitic lynching. It tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent who lived in Atlanta and in 1913 was convicted — almost certainly wrongfully — of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl.

Even at the time, it was clear that the prosecution’s case against Frank was flimsy, so much so that it sparked national outrage and appeals traveled all the way to the Supreme Court. Eventually, the constant publicity pressured the governor of Georgia to commute the sentence against Frank from death to life imprisonment. A few months after the commutation came in, an antisemitic mob broke into the prison, kidnapped Frank, and hanged him.

All of this chronology appears in unsparing detail in Parade, which makes much of the bureaucratic wrangling that led to Frank’s ruin. But what is more central to Parade, and what perhaps makes it still powerful enough to worry a neo-Nazi, is its attention to the way antisemitism fits into a broader system of white supremacy. Parade is an intersectional show, and what it parades before the audience is a case study in how antisemitism sits alongside anti-Blackness and misogyny, each system of oppression strengthening the other.

Parade does not begin with Leo Frank. Instead, its first scene depicts a young Confederate soldier singing farewell to his sweetheart as he prepares to leave home to go to war. (All the music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, and the book is by Driving Miss Daisy playwright Alfred Uhry. The current Broadway revival is directed by Michael Arden.) By the time the song ends, 50 years have gone by, the soldier has become a wounded veteran, and the town is honoring him in a parade for what was then known as Confederate Memorial Day.

“Praise those who fight for the old hills of Georgia,” the townspeople sing, as children jubilantly wave Confederate flags and the few Black residents look on from the back of the stage in silence. This is the context, we are shown, in which Leo Frank was murdered: in a city barely 50 years removed from slavery, where the southern Lost Cause is recalled not just romantically but with an almost religious fervor.

Yet Parade never allows that fervor to transfer to the audience. Always, when white characters begin to speak longingly of the antebellum south, the staging draws our attention to Black characters going rigid in response, skirting themselves away from the topic and toward someplace safer.

“Hangin’ another nigra ain’t enough this time,” the corrupt prosecutor Hugh Dorsey concludes after he whips the town into a vengeful frenzy over the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan. “We gotta do better.” Leo Frank is the superintendent of the factory where Mary’s body was found, and his cosmopolitan New York Jewishness, Dorsey continues, makes him a more interesting suspect. He is alien to the south and as such could surely easily be a monster. “You want evidence? Look at those clothes and that big fancy talk.”

Scandal-mongering reporters rapidly adopt Dorsey’s angle. “Take this superstitious city, add one little Jew from Brooklyn, plus a college education and a mousy little wife, and big news!” one concludes.

As the publicity storm over the trial mounts, the press transforms Mary from the everyday giggly 13-year-old who appeared onstage at the beginning of the play into a child saint. “Who will restore the angel’s honor?” demands the Christian politician Tom Watson as he calls for Mary’s murder to be avenged. Periodically her ghost descends wordlessly from the rafters on a swing, a visitation from the Virgin Mary in a lavender pinafore. In a misogynistic court system, a sexual assault victim is only useful if she is inhumanly pure.

In turn, the man who destroyed such an angel must be monstrous, Satanic. “Give ’im fangs, give ’im horns, give ’im scaly, hairy palms,” crows a reporter. The old medieval libel that Jews are out to rape Christian women comes back, with interest: “Sure, that fella’s here to rape the whole damned south!”

Meanwhile, as Dorsey builds his case against Leo, the brutal Jim Crow regime gives him plenty of targets to pressure into giving false testimony. The Franks’ Black maid, Minnie, testifies against him, and so does the Black janitor at Leo’s factory. “What was I supposed to do?” Minnie asks when Leo’s wife, Lucille, confronts her about her false testimony. Lucille has no answer.

After Leo’s conviction becomes a cause celebre in the north, it does not escape the notice of Minnie or of the rest of the Black company that none of the righteous liberal anger lavished on Leo’s case ever seems to appear over their daily horrors. “I can tell you this, as a matter of fact, that the local hotels wouldn’t be so packed if a little Black girl had gotten attacked,” one of them sings as the rest cheer him on sardonically. “There’s a Black man swingin’ in every tree, but they don’t never pay attention.”

Those Black characters are also maddeningly underwritten, in one of the major flaws of Parade. This show tends to depict all its characters outside Leo and Lucille as allegorical figures rather than as real human beings, but the issue becomes especially vexed with the Black characters, who seem to exist solely to comment on the south’s racism.

Oddly symbolic, too, is one of the additions Brown and Uhry make to the historical record. In real life, the teenage girls who worked at Frank’s factory were character witnesses for the defense, testifying that Frank never attempted to seduce them and so was unlikely to have tried to attack Mary Phagan in a sexual frenzy. In Parade, they become witnesses for the prosecution, lying that Leo sexually harassed them on a regular basis. As they testify, on the side of the stage, nebbishy Leo transforms himself into a comically incompetent harasser. The result is muddled, an attempt to deal with the complicity of white women in white supremacy that winds up suggesting that if a group of girls accuses their employer of harassing them but the employer is nerdy, then the girls are probably lying.

Parade is caught in the systems it examines, which is part of what makes the show so fascinating. Since 1998, it has worked to address its flaws, and in some cases has exacerbated them; underwritten Minnie, for instance, is a late addition to the show. Despite its occasional missteps, it remains committed to depicting the way all of these systems together led to the tragedy of Leo Frank: the antisemitism, the anti-Blackness, the misogyny, all of them interlocking. What Parade has to offer us is a portrait of how all these different forms of oppression can fit together in a single case — and the results are powerful enough that they’ve got neo-Nazis riled up.