PARADE is a show that fits at the intersection of a few pertinent global discussions: racial and religious persecution, misogyny and violence against women, and a lighter resurgence of American historical musicals. Perhaps the consistent feeling that the political climate of the United States is sliding further and further into the past is calling people to turn to staged political events with clearer moral codes and reliable heros’ journeys. Whatever the reason, director Hayden Tonazzi’s desire to add purpose and meaning to the society’s choice of major production is a commendable one.
Set in the Confederate city of Atlanta, Georgia and revolving around the Confederate Memorial Day in remembrance of the South’s loss in the American Civil War, PARADE dramatises the real murder of Mary Phagan and the trial, false imprisonment, and murder of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank. It’s odd how Australia routinely chooses to examine itself and its history through American stories and this manner never quite dispels my unease at seeing Confederate flags flown in a country that lacks the specific historical context to justify it. That being said, what can the stage do if not transcend borders? After all, there isn’t a country that cannot claim Phagan and Frank’s story as a common one.
The lead actors, Brendan Paul and Sarah Levins playing Leo and Lucille Frank, were superb with strong vocal talent and a sweet stage partnership. Their duet in “All the Wasted Time” was beautiful and brought much needed tenderness to the production. Levins, in particular, gave poise, power, and stage presence to a disappointingly underestimated character. Her consistent characterisation and attention to detail arrested attention even when ostensibly sitting in the corner.
Other standout performances include the crowd favourite, Jim Conley played by Naisa Lasalosi. His solo songs were powerful and provocative in exactly the way performances should be. If he has performance aspirations, his career is one to watch. The opening of Act II (“Act Two Prelude/Rumblin’ & Rolling'”) with Lasalosi, Stephanie Ampofo, and Samuel Asamoah was bright and joyful; a wonderful reminder of what it looks like for actors to enjoy their performance.
The set design, also from Tonazzi, was stark and largely empty, aiming to let the lighting design and Laura Balboni’s costuming do the majority of the scene work. There were some truly beautiful moments in the lighting design, namely in Jim Conley’s recount of finding Mary Phagan’s (Sophie McGregor) body, Conley’s time on the chain gang, and the factory girls’ testimonies. All instances which showed how powerful an intelligent and artistic use of lighting can be. Unfortunately, there was an equal amount of moments throughout the production where the vastness of the Everest Theatre and a stagnation in choreography meant the scene appeared unfinished rather than modest. It’s clear Tonazzi wanted the audience to focus on the actors and not the towering blank wall behind them, but this wasn’t always successful.
The marketing for this production and the majority of criticism around this show feels eerily familiar to present day occurrences of violence against women and religious persecution: there’s inordinate attention paid to the victims and not the perpetrators of the violence. Let me, for a moment, separate the two layers of hatred in this show in order to discuss them appropriately. PARADE is “about” the false accusation, trial, and imprisonment that led up to the lynching of Leo Frank. Historians widely agree Frank was innocent and herald this as one of the most important individual events of anti-Semitism in the United States because of how effectively white men in power were able to manipulate public sentiment and cultivate false information (aka “fake news”). Governor Slaton (Sam Whitaker), prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey (Hamish Stening), politician Tom Watson (Michael Kaufmann), and journalist Britt Craig (Fred Pryce) were all white men who used their positions, and the power and influence they afforded them, to sacrifice Frank and Mary Phagan for the good of their careers; careers that relied on a solid status quo and a kyriarchy that would always put them on top. The show handles this blame clumsily, often pushing the responsibility off onto the vague “whole world” who wrongly convicted Frank. The cringeworthy attempts at humanising Governor Slaton in quips about guilt with his wife (Laura Balboni) juxtaposed with mob scenes chanting “Jew” appear to oversimplify the issues and muddle the message to a degree. The impulse to focus on the victims of racism and religious persecution can often shift the attention off of the systems and powerful individuals who perpetuate this oppression at all costs.
Additionally, much discussion of the show and the real life trial fails to acknowledge the added layer of nuance when it allows yet another violent death of a young woman act as merely the catalyst for another tragedy. This isn’t to say that either Mary Phagan or Leo Frank’s murder is more important than the other or more deserving of dramatisation. It’s to draw attention to the frequency with which violence against women is minimised, categorised, or shifted entirely out the conversation in favour of something perhaps “more relevant”. The testimony of the factory girls Iola (Catherine Londos), Essie (Samantha Anderson), and Monteen (Lali Gill) was harrowing to watch, not because they were coached by Dorsey to give false testimony, but because they were expressing very real feelings of fear and intimidation that countless women endure at the hands of their partners, bosses, fathers, friends, and strangers but that almost never stand up in court unless when serving the “higher” purpose of a white man’s agenda. Mary Phagan doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It may seem trivial, but it speaks to the way our society chalks a girl’s murder up to “just another one” without any justice or remembrance.
This is a tough production. An unlikely choice for a university society’s major production but, if only for the quality of performance he was able to bring out, Tonazzi’s choice paid off.
PARADE is running at the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre from March 21st – 24th.