PARADE – a musical theater piece by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry.
Review and Mediation by Father James DiLuzio CSP
This past weekend I began my observance of what we Christians call Holy Week by attending PARADE. This musical theatre piece dramatizes the travesty of a historical 1912 trial convicting an innocent man of murder. The man was Leo Frank, one of the few Jewish members of an Atlanta community, sentenced to death by hanging. For two years, Lucille, his wife, and many legal and justice-oriented organizations from the north submitted appeals for Leo, until, finally, Georgia Governor John Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Angered by the governor’s decree, a mob abducted Frank from his jail cell. Hanging from a tree, Leo reiterated his innocence and prayed the Kaddish – a prayer recited daily by devout Jews and commonly offered at burials and subsequent days of mourning. Here is one of many English translations:
“Exalted and sanctified be God’s Great Name,
in the world which God created according to His Will,
May He establish His Kingdom,
and may His salvation blossom,
and His anointed be near.”
The tragedy of Leo Frank’s trial, the ultimate sentence, and lynching provide heartrending evidence of Antisemitism and other forms of scapegoating in the United States right down to today. As a Catholic priest, I could not stop making connections between Leo’s story and Jesus’ trial and execution. Does not the Kaddish echo themes in many of the Psalms, especially Psalm 22 that Jesus prays while suffering on the cross? It begins with “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” but concludes with these words of praise:
“You who fear the Lord, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
25 For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away[g] from me,
but heard me when I cried out.
26 I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.”
I began wondering if Jesus’ crucifixion could be scrutinized in such a way as to conceive Jesus’ death as an example of Antisemitism along with Leo Frank’s. The Roman empires’ disdain (albeit with tolerance) for the Jews is well documented. The Gospels portray Pilate as making no effort to reconcile the opposing factions within the Jewish religious authorities – abandoning his magisterial duty. Was this in part due to his contempt for the Jews? (In fact, the Gospels try to show Pilate as sympathetic to Jesus because of early Christianity’s hope to gain acceptance and recognition from Rome. But Pilate’s historical reputation does not present him as a man of integrity and compassion.)  As with Leo Frank’s trial, many witnesses lied and/ or were coerced in preparation for their testimonies against Jesus. In both cases, the antisemitism may be perceived as ingrained in the culture, rather than overt – i.e., no one in either crowd (if the play is accurate in this regard) cries “Kill the Jew.” More importantly, however, in both cases, the government, the state alone, has the power to execute, while hatred for a person who was “not like others” reveals the failings of humanity as a whole, above and beyond any particular prejudice. That, at least, is the emphasis in the Gospel and an essential lesson of Jesus’ Passion. Still, had our very Jewish Jesus been a Roman citizen, would there have been a trial at all, let alone an execution? Banishment, maybe. I welcome further conversation on these ideas.
As for PARADE, the production is solid, the performances top caliber, and the plot appropriately disturbing. The title itself is filled with irony – echoing the popular public marches of John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) that engaged 19th-century Americans in displays of national pride. Exemplifying the nation’s hubris, these marches along with Stephen Foster’s wistful parlor songs, often disguised the many prejudices of the age: slavery, racism, and the abuses of the industrial revolution. Fittingly, Jason Robert Brown’s score evokes Sousa in most of the coral scenes – the Chorus representing the Atlanta public – proud, boastful, and blindly egocentric. The opening ensemble piece is so over-the-top- nationalistic, I cringed throughout, anticipating at the onset, as most of us do, that this crowd will soon be transformed into a violent mob.
To his credit, Brown uses a variety of 19th-century musical styles in addition to the musical fanfares as the plot unfolds. I found his ballads the best part of the score, especially those highlighting intimate moments between Leo Frank and his wife Lucille. The excellent Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond as the Franks shine in these scenes. In addition, Brown inserts typical Broadway show-stopping tunes to several supporting players, but I think he was misguided to feature these in a play of such importance. For example, while playing Jim Conley, a more likely murder suspect, Alex Joseph Grayson gives a bravura performance in a spirit-filled, toe-tapping song that screams for applause. But the music is set to the lyrics of his testimony against Mr. Frank that incriminate Leo so completely that the irony of the musical setting is lost. The mendacity in evidence in the number is just too painful and we are left confused as to how to respond. Only a third of the audience at the performance I attended attempted to clap.
The book by playwright Alfred Uhry could have been a bit tighter, too. Indeed, some plot points and character traits need more clarification – especially in regard to Leo’s defense attorney. Was he truly so inept? Furthermore, I would have liked more insight into Leo Frank himself as the script presents him as both an intellectual snob, a workaholic, and, at times, an utter nebbish. Uhry only allows Platt to realize Leo’s deeper humanity as he faces death. That may be true for many of us, but the play’s overall impact offers more insights into the angry crowd’s dynamics, the governor’s cowardice, and the prosecutor’s craftiness than into Leo’s “Everyman” dimensions. To be sure, the show offers empathy for Leo, but more in conceptual terms than profoundly personal ones. Interestingly, because there is much in the script akin to Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, Uhry and Parade’s producers could have paid more attention to Miller’s protagonist John Proctor, the man scapegoated by Salem’s witch-hunting magistrates. All the same, the tragic events and elements of this story are important ones to scrutinize and evaluate, and the talents of all involved are quantitatively more in evidence than their failings. PARADE is an essential work of theater for our time.
Home – Parade (paradebroadway.com)
 Writing around 90 CE, the Jewish author Josephus cited decrees by Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Augustus and Claudius, endowing Jewish communities with a number of rights. Central privileges included the right to be exempted from polis religious rituals and the permission “to follow their ancestral laws, customs and religion”. Jews were also exempted from military service and the provision of Roman troops. Contrary to what Josephus wants his readers to believe, the Jews did not have the status of religio licita (permitted religion) as this status did not exist in the Roman empire, nor were all Roman decrees concerning the Jews positive. Instead, the regulations were made as a response to individual requests to the emperor. The decrees were deployed by Josephus “as instruments in an ongoing political struggle for status”.
Because of their one-sided viewpoint, the authenticity of the decrees has been questioned many times, but they are now thought to be largely authentic. Still, Josephus gave only one side of the story by leaving out negative decisions and pretending that the rulings were universal. This way, he carried out an ideological message showing that the Romans allowed the Jews to carry out their own customs and rituals; the Jews were protected in the past and were still protected by these decisions in his own time. Source: History of the Jews in the Roman Empire – Wikipedia which also cites entries from The Jewish Encyclopedia: ROME – JewishEncyclopedia.com Interestingly, however, because there was considerable “tolerance” of Judaism in Rome, the “disdain” I reference is evidenced in the ways Pilate treated the Jews of Jerusalem following precedent from other rulers.
 “Josephus also recounts that Pilate raided the temple treasury for funds to construct an aqueduct; when the population again protested, Pilate arranged for his soldiers to mingle among the crowds and then, at an appointed signal, massacre them (Ant. 18:60-62). According to Philo . . . Pilate was ‘a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate . . . in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” Source: The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine, and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. New York: Oxford University Press. The Jewish Annotated New Testament by Amy-Jill Levine, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble® (barnesandnoble.com)
 Book of Wisdom 2: “14 To us he is the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us, 15 Because his life is not like that of others, and different are his ways.”
For more on Pilate’s Culpability for Jesus’ execution see https://www.history.com/news/why-pontius-pilate-executed-jesus?cmpid=email-hist-inside-history-onequestion-2023-0407-04072023&om_rid=21de76af3b93bfc2237c061c3efab4963e944473afe0f8a29fa6d66b32ec6c39