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Parade’ At Cygnet Exposes Dark Chapter In U.S. History

Above: Scene during the opening day of the Leo Frank trial, 1913.

Aired 2/29/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

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.”

Transcript

The controversial 1913 trial and conviction of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory worker accused of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia, set off a social firestorm that would continue to shake the nation for years to come. It also provides the backdrop for a new production at Cygnet Theatre. “Parade” explores this dark chapter in U.S. history and sheds light on the social, racial, religious and class tensions in the volatile South.

"Parade" runs March 8 through April 29 at Cygnet Theatre.
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Above: "Parade" runs March 8 through April 29 at Cygnet Theatre.

After Frank was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Mary Phagan, two years of appeals eventually led the governor to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. This angered many, and a mob of elite Georgians responded by abducting Frank from the penitentiary and lynching him in the neighboring town of Marietta, where Phagan was buried.

Who killed thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan? Who lynched Leo Frank? Since Frank’s guilt was questioned by many and it was never revealed who lynched him, these questions remained definitively unanswered for decades. Journalist and author Steve Oney spent 17 years researching the murky, contentious history surrounding this double murder mystery, which he says “set the stage for a deep and lasting unease in the U.S.” Through his research, which he likens to "more of an anthropological dig than journalism," Oney subsequently exposed those responsible for Phagan’s death and Frank’s lynching, which he details in his book “And the Dead Shall Rise" (Pantheon, 2003).

“The Frank case is an instant in which everything your parents told you not to talk about all came into bright relief: race, religion, sex, class,” says Oney. The two crimes created deep polarities that can still be felt today, and also led to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League and the modern-day KKK, which reformed shortly after Frank’s lynching.

“This was really the first confrontation between ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’. People couldn’t see past their own points of view,” says Oney. “Frank was one of the first white guys to be convicted of murder with a black man’s testimony.”

The play “Parade” explores the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, as well as the love story that develops between Leo and his wife Lucille as they struggle to defend his innocence. Written by American playwright Alfred Uhry, “Parade” made its Broadway debut in 1998 and received eight Tony Awards, including “Best Original Score” and “Outstanding Musical”.

KPBS Midday Edition talks to the play’s director, Sean Murray, and actor Gigi Coddington as well as author Steve Oney about the troubling events that inspired this Tony Award-winning musical.

“Parade” runs March 8 through April 29 at Cygnet Theatre, located at the Old Town Theatre in Old Town. For more information, visit www.cygnettheatre.com.

On Sunday, March 25 at 7 pm, the Anti-Defamation League and Cygnet Theatre will present a talk with author Steve Oney, who will be reading passages from his book “And the Dead Shall Rise”.

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