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‘Parade’ presents haunting wake-up call about bigotry

‘Parade’ presents haunting wake-up call about bigotry
Kelton Washington delivers a showstopping solo in Parade. (Photo: Ryan Mullen/Guardrail)

If you think self-serving politicians pitting minorities against each other is a relatively new phenomenon, think again.

In fact, about a century ago, political leaders in Marietta, Ga. pressured black and poor white witnesses to frame a young Jewish man for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old Christian girl. The defendant was New York native and National Pencil Company factory superintendent Leo Frank and the deceased was factory worker Mary Phagan.     

“Parade” marched this disturbing case to Broadway and took home 1999 Tony Awards for its challenging book and score.

Now F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company is hammering home the musical’s  cautionary message in the intimate confines of the black box downstairs space at Watertown’s Arsenal Center for the Arts.

“Parade” begins and ends with Georgians paying tribute to the Confederacy. At the start, a Confederate soldier heads off to the Civil War and at the end, citizens wave Confederate flags on Memorial Day in 1915.

The well-detailed musical portrays a Georgia – specifically Marietta and Atlanta – rife with hatred of blacks and Jews and politicians ready to scapegoat both minorities to further their careers.

Just as powerfully, it chronicles the framing and conviction of Frank, the commutation of his death sentence by Governor Slaton and the lynching of Frank by a vigilante mob known as the Knights of Mary Phagan.

At the same time, “Parade” demonstrates the remarkable efforts of Frank’s wife, Lucille, to save him from death row.

F.U.D.G.E. artistic director Joe DeMita sharply paces both the first act framing of Leo and the love-propelled efforts of undaunted Lucille in persuading Governor Slaton to study the trial and the questionable testimony of black factory janitor Jim Conley and young friends of Mary.

With clever blocking and movement, he has Marietta citizens — young and adult — parading around and hounding Leo and Lucille on the one hand and black factory employee Newt Lee and Frank’s previously loyal maid Minnie on the other.

DeMita’s own nuanced lighting – including bright spotlighting of Mary behind the scrim — provides effective contrast between the seeming gentility of the citizenry.

A largely first-rate cast makes the musical’s timely messages about hate crimes and the power of love and understanding iron-clad.

Adam Schuler captures Leo’s initial naiveté and his growing vulnerabilty. His pre-lynching traditional Jewish prayer “Sh’ma” is heart-wrenching.

Lori L’Italien makes a very convincing transformation from unassuming Southern Jewish wife to determined defender of her husband and his innocence. Big-voiced L’Italien’s impassioned “You Don’t Know This Man” and her lyrical duet with Schuler on “All the Wasted Time” are very moving highlights.

The arguable showstopper is Kelton Washington’s gospel-like solo “Feel the Rain Fall” as chain gang-working Conley. Washington is equally effective as Newt Lee — especially when he and Kira Cowan decry the indifference of bigoted Georgians — and by extension Americans in general – to the lynching of blacks during the same time period.

Tristyn Sepersky brings pathos to the role of Mary but should project more. Ross Brown has the right cynicism as journalist Britt Craig and doubles very well as Governor Slaton, particularly as he realizes how trumped-up the evidence is against Frank.

“Parade” remains an important reminder of a particularly brutal case. The powerful and poignant F.U.D.G.E. revival is a timely wake-up call to the need for constant vigilance against bigotry.

Parade, F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company, Arsenal Center for the Arts, through October 21. 617-923-8487