Gigi Coddington is an actor performing in “Parade”.
Sean Murray is director of “Parade” and artistic director of Cygnet Theatre.
Steve Oney is a journalist and author of the book, “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.”
Related Story: 'Parade' At Cygnet Exposes Dark Chapter In U.S. History
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The term musical comedy is used so frequently, we sometimes forget that musicals can do more than make us laugh. Like great opera, musicals can connect us deeply to the emotional power of a tragic event. And tragedy actually a national tragedy is the subject of a musical opening next week at signet theatre in old town. The show is called parade, and it tells the story of of lynching of Leo Frank. Sean Murray is artist director of signet theatre and director of parade.
MURRAY: Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Gigi Coddington is an actor who playing two roles in parade. Welcome. And Steve Oney is author of and the dead shall rise, the murder of Mary Phagan, and the lynching of Leo frank. Welcome to the program. Let me start with you. This play centers on the story of your book, the story of Leo frank. Who was he?
ONEY: Leo frank was a Cornell educated industrialist who moved to Atlanta about 100 years ago to run a big pencil factory. He was a Yankee, and he was most important importantly a Jew. And the pencil factory was a large central concern and employed about 150 laboreror, most of them children. So it was a situation that in a nation in the deep south that still felt defeated in the civil war was fraught with potential anxiety at best, and violence at worst.
CAVANAUGH: And one of his employees, Mary Fagan was found raped and murdered. Leo frank was tried, convicted, sentenced to death in Georgia for the murder. But then his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. What happened then?
ONEY: Well, other the commutation of his death sentence was the culmination of two years in which the case became a cause celebre between the time of Mary Phagan's death, are and the time the sentence was commuted. And the entire country was overwrought about the frank case. And leading the charge was the New York Times. And when Frank's sentence was commuted, it so angered people in and around Atlanta who felt that the commutation was the result of outside interference led by the national press that a group of very powerful people got together and planned frank's lynching. Now, there were several hundred lynchings in Georgia between the 18 '80s and 1930s. There were 20 just in 1915. Most of those occurred immediately after the crime to which the victim who was accused occurred. And most of the victims were black. Frank was white. And he was a prisoner of the state penitentiary. So this group that got together to lynch him had to go down to Millersville Georgia in the heart of Georgia, about 125 miles south of Atlanta, they went in a car caravan, abducted frank in the dead of night, and turned around and George largely in model Ts on dirt roads back to a suburb outside of Atlanta and lynched him at dawn the next day. And it was an incredible feat of daring do, and took leverage and power and influence to pull it off.
CAVANAUGH: And an atrocity. What is the verdict of history? Did Leo frank have anything to do with the rain and murder of Mary Fagan?
ONEY: Most historians today say no. There was credible evidence against Leo frank. And even today, he would have been arrested in this crime. He was the last person to admit having seen her Alive. He told contradictory stories, he was extremely upset when the police initially questioned him. But most likely today, that would not be enough. These were circumstantial pieces of evidence that wouldn't lead to a conviction in a murder case.
CAVANAUGH: Sean Murray, the musical, Parade, takes frank's story on the stage. Why did sill net choose this challenging musical?
MURRAY: Well, we're always looking for musicals or any material that has some kind of dramatic content, something beyond entertainment for its own sake. In searching for a piece for our season, we are looking for a musical or play that has a good script, a lot of character-driven stories. I like shows that have the quality of -- I call it the drive home show, as you drive home, you can't stop talking about the conversation that gets going. And when I first discovered this show, I was searching for something for our season. And I did not know the story at all. And in listening to the music, I was so swept up into the score and the story that it just seemed like a perfect fit for what we try to do.
CAVANAUGH: How do you actually go about staging a show with horrors like this in it? We just heard from Steve about what happened, and there is the original murder of this 13 year-old girl. What have you done with that?
MURRAY: Well, are the script itself doesn't contain a lot of stage direction. And so you're left pretty much with the words that the playwright and the composer has given you. So you have to really drive into the story and try to imagine how to put that into theatrical terms. The murder of the little girl is never seen on stage. You kind of jump from the last time we see her Alive to when her body is discovered. So you don't really know how that happened. When you get to the lynching, I think that there's a lot of different approaches that have been taken with this show. Some companies have actually shown a rigging harness where they actually show the hanging, and other companies sort of don't show it. They leave it more to the imagination. And so I think because our production is in a small, intimate theatre in old town, I felt -- we explored really showing it graphically, and I think we discovered the space is too intimate, it's too small. There's an -- in an odd way, you're invading the privacy by making that a show biz piece. So what I think is beautiful in the script is more about what Leo is facing just before his fate. And my take on it is a tragic show, but my take on it is that Leo and Lucille as portrayed in the show come out the other end of the story with a much stronger sense of courage, support, they discover core elements of who they are that they weren't in touch with at the beginning. So by the end of the play, Leo has this sense of being able to look these men in the eye and say I am innocent and continue to convey his innocence and not give them any benefit of kind of a panicked anything.
CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Gigi into our conversation. She's an actor in Parade. You play Manola McKnight. Tell us about her.
CODDINGTON: She was the high yellow, which means light-skinned black, cook and house maid of the Franks. She was very much a victim of her circumstance and status in southern society, pretty much forced into making a false affidavit against the franks. She was put in jail for four-days. Her husband was brought in to try to convince her to tell the truth. He was beaten up. In the end, she had no choice but to sign the statement. A colored woman couldn't really be a hero in that rear A. It was basically her life and well being at stake. In the end, she did reconcile with Mrs. Frank because Mrs. Frank being a southerner understood that she had to do this.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you're from the south.
CODDINGTON: I am.
CAVANAUGH: And your background is a very interesting one. You identify as a southerner, a black woman, and Jewish.
CAVANAUGH: So what did you think of the world of this play?
CODDINGTON: The south is a very layered place, it's welcoming and closed at the same time. There's a line in the play in which Leo Frank asks his wife how she can be Jewish and southern at the same time. And I can understand that. In the south, it's very possible to be southern first and foremost. And because it's our identity. It's what we grow up being proud of. It's the culture we grew up in is very inviting and nurturing on the otherwise, and it's immoveable in its core beliefs on the inside. This play is kind of a perfect storm of showing how people and indifference and ignorance can really lead to horrible, horrible things.
CAVANAUGH: Just how everything can go wrong.
CAVANAUGH: Steve, you spent 17 years researching this book. What about frank's story was so compelling for you?
ONEY: Well, I spent 17 years working it with a kind of chagrin. That's a heck of a lifetime to work on a piece. But I wrote an article for, Esq. 20 some years ago, an -- a teenager had been a witness against Leo frank came out later to say that he had lied. And that intrigued me. And I used his revelation to write this story for, Esq.. And it was a lengthy piece. But when I got to the end of it, I realized it was only the tip of the iceberg. And for me, the Frank case, it's just where the dam breaks in the south. And you see race, religion, class, and sex all barrel down into this lynching. Frank was convicted, largely on the testimony of a black man, his alleged co-supporter in the murder of Mary Fabegan, and that's one of the first things a white man in the south was convicted in a capital case on the testimony of a black man. The lynching led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League and to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which had gone out of business in the south. So the Frank case just touches on all these deep and abiding undercurrents, and they welled up and led to this disaster. And I think in many way, the polarities of the Frank case, rich, poor, Jewish, gentile, black, white are still with us today. I see the Frank case as a ground zero of some enduring hostilities.
CAVANAUGH: You say that the music of the show was something that led you into it. Tell us about the music in this show.
MURRAY: The music is a mixture of soaring ballads, rag time, gospel, blues. It's a gigantic score. I would say almost an opera. The way they've utilized the actual testimony from the trial into converting those into lyrics, I'm astounded the how they take this gigantic story and distill it in a very simple way. And without losing its complexity, it's a very, very rich piece. Steve's book, we just draw on that constantly. It seems to never end in terms of its depth. We learn so much from it. And I just -- I just find that the music to this is pretty amazing.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, you talked about how you considered the staging of the lynching and how you considered the venue and so forth. How are you expecting audiences at the signet in old town to react to this piece?
MURRAY: Well, we don't know.
[ LAUGHTER ]
MURRAY: The thing to focus on though is that the musical is a live theatre piece. It's not just a history lesson. And the focus of the musical is the growing relationship between -- and love story between Lucille and Leo.
CAVANAUGH: And that of course is his wife.
MURRAY: Right. And so in the midst of all of this growing horror that happens around him, and the false accusations, what you anchor on emotionally is this tender -- the ending of the play is so tender and sweet that it just brings tears to your eyes to think about it. And so what I think you pull out of it is both the story in terms of how we relate to it today, are the circumstances today, but also just on an emotional human level of what does is a particular individual suspicious, when they're caught up in the center of history.
CAVANAUGH: So as deep and profound as the subject matter is, you wouldn't describe the show as depressing?
MURRAY: No. I wouldn't find it depressing. We're trying to find the hope at the end of it. The hope that Lucille actually continued living in the south for a long time until the mid-19-50s when she passed away. She did not retreat. She held onto who she was, in a sort of sense of defiance. In order to make sure that this show isn't completely a tragic piece, you've got to find the humanity in it.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank my guests. Thank you all very much.
MURRAY: Thank you
CODDINGTON: Thank you
ONEY: Thank you.