“I go to fight for these old hills behind me, these old Red Hills of Home.” This chorus, sang throughout Elon University’s rendition of the 1998 musical Parade, describes the spirit of the antebellum South that extended beyond the old hills of Georgia. With an exceptional cast and crew, Parade was a landmark in our nation’s history. The musical, which was a dramatization of the 1913 hanging of Jewish pencil factory superintendent Leo Frank, nearly brought me to tears with its poignant reminder of injustices that still haunt our country. Each character symbolized 20th century Georgia, where traditions of the Confederate South were paramount. Each scene was laden with themes of fear, prejudice and deceit. Of all the performances I have watched at Elon (and the list is long), Parade is the most powerful as a retelling of prejudice in America with a glimpse of hope and redemption.
History has taught us that men and women fight for what they believe—no matter the potential damage to innocent lives. Leo Frank, portrayed by Julian Burzynski, is heart wrenchingly indicted for murdering a 13-year-old girl. As the townspeople turn on him, his life begins to unravel. Burzynski’s brilliant performance captures the sad truth of a society willing to falsely convict a decent, honest man of an egregious crime. As the story becomes less about the young girl and more about fighting newness, the musical emphasizes the traditions of the Old South that allowed racism and anti-Semitism roam free. Frank, who is initially calculated and restrained, is unable to declare Georgia to be his home.
Leo’s wife Lucille Frank, played beautifully by Emily Fallon, is the atypical hero of the story. As a woman, I admired Lucille for her valiant efforts to save her husband and her unrelenting concern for justice. Emboldened by his wife, Frank finally sees the value of his own life. Both Lucille and Leo never back down from the truth, even though their family is scorned and ridiculed by nearly everyone.
Much of the musical is about the cyclical nature of greed. Frank is indicted because of greedy politicians who rally the townspeople to honor the Old South. People, both black and white, testify against Frank under the command of Hugh Dorsey, a conniving prosecuting attorney. Instead of accusing a black man of a child’s death, Dorsey’s prejudice against a Jew is a testament to a recurring theme of aversion to the “other” and embodies some sour parts of our country’s past. Encouraged by the priest who calls Dorsey the “savior of the South” and a local reporter who capitalizes on the story, Dorsey manages to defame Frank’s character.
There is a need for journalists and storytellers, alike, to honestly depict the human condition and illuminate concerns people may wrestle with. I was overcome with emotion watching a religious figure preaching hostility to innocent people. Equally so, I was moved by the portrayal of racial division between black and whites. One of the characters shows frustration with Frank’s story, touching on persecution against blacks even in a trial against a white man. Watching Frank’s downfall unfold, I realized that many people at the time suffered a similar fate of execution based on false accusations. In 2016, these fears are still relevant, although not as severe.
I am proud to attend a school like Elon where we can discuss these historical patterns. Frank personifies our capacity as humans to lose self-confidence when we are treated as outsiders. Thankfully, the South no longer looks like it once did; although there are still residual affects we see in racial tensions, wealth gaps and unacceptable stereotypes. Historians would say that history does not repeat itself. I would argue that history rather affords us an opportunity to learn from mistakes and fight for the innocent and wrongly accused. As a member of the Elon community, I hope to support and advocate for the “Franks” I encounter. While Parade is no longer showing, I believe that its message will continue to touch the hearts of students, faculty and guests for months to come.