I’m still struggling three days after seeing Parade to understand why the musical at the Omaha Community Playhouse is such a troubling experience.
Maybe the key to my confusion is the decision by director Jeff Horger to have his cast mill about the Howard Drew space in street clothes, talking to individuals in the audience, before returning in character when the show begins. Then they come back at the conclusion, out of character and costumes, carrying inclusive flags that bring hope of a less bigoted and more hopeful world than seen in the horror story they had performed.
We’ve just witnessed the cruel world of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1913, where Leo Frank, an innocent Jew from Brooklyn, is convicted and later lynched for the murder of little Mary Phagan, a worker in the pencil factory managed by Leo.
With Confederate flags flying and music playing, Georgians memorialize the war they lost, as they put it, “when the South was still free.” Perhaps those who don’t know the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War can watch their celebration without vivid memories of the KKK slaughtering blacks who dared to exercise their newfound freedom to vote.
If so, they won’t be bothered by a performance that has blacks dancing with whites who treated them as sub-human. In fairness to director Horger, read his program notes which make a noble effort to justify the need to deliver a message with theatrical force, and sympathize with his disassociation of the players from their roles and his reminder “This is not over yet.”
We all understand that his cast members are not the characters they portray, but we’re also asked to pretend “this show is not a political piece. It is a historical piece,” he writes.
Good luck pushing the politics aside when White Supremacists still march down American streets singing, “The Jews will not replace us,” and when one of them spews his intolerance at the University of Nebraska.
So of course it isn’t fair to cast members or the Playhouse to associate them with the sins of such repulsive characters as Tom Watson. But it is reasonable to wonder how one might have received this book by Alfred Uhry and the music by Jason Robert Brown when it opened in 1998, when it might have been easier to see these as sins of the past.
It’s not Brian Priesman’s fault that his portrayal of Tom Watson, an extreme racist journalist, seemed rather benign. The script simply doesn’t display his evil stench beyond a few bigoted lyrics. And, yes, it’s probably my fault that the current state of our political life makes it difficult for me to see this musical in a more receptive light.
But that speaks strongly to the need for readers to see Parade for themselves. James Verderamo’s portrayal of Leo believably transforms him from a nerdy naif to a noble victim. And Megan Kelly as his wife Lucille also grows effectively as a warrior on his behalf.
Many of the supporting players, such as L. James Wright, help us see how decent people are drawn into the pursuit of injustice.
The musical presents some of more villainous whites, for example, the politically craven prosecutor (Michael Markey), as rather mildly mischievous miscreants. And arguably this is more sophisticated than depicting them as bloodthirsty savages. Oddly, the only overtly monstrous character is a black prisoner played powerfully by J. Isaiah Smith, who testifies, “That’s what he said,” after concocting a self-serving fable about Frank.
For heroes we get a governor (Mike Palmreuter) whose wife (Rebecca Noble) stiffens his backbone enough to spare Leo Frank long enough for his lynching.
Finally, we have only Leo to quietly sing, “It’s hard to speak my heart,” and for wife Lucille to realize she must “Do It Alone” if Leo can be saved.
So, yeah, it seems I can’t quite get past the enormity of this depraved sociology that some may see as the past that made America great when states’ rights meant the freedom to do whatever with your human property.
Forgive my injustice to the labors of director, cast and crew in presenting a polished performance of such an unbearable reminder of what I’m guilty of hoping we’d left behind us.
Parade runs through March 11 in the Howard Drew Theatre of the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Varied ticket prices are generally $25 for students, $42 for adults, and are available by calling 402.553.0800 or by visiting omahaplayhouse.com.