Thursday, 05 September 2013 09:49

A Parade of Our Past

Written by 

Will you walk with your head held high?
Or move aside when they're passin' you by?
Will you run when the fires are fanned?
And where will you stand when the flood comes?—Parade, Act II 

It is not hard to find men of a similar mindset who speak truth about a time in history we’re not proud of, a story that needs to be remembered and never forgotten. There is a lot to be said about someone who decides not to sit back and let an ugly part of history go ignored because the truth can be shocking and disturbing.

There is even more to be said about a theatre company who is fearless enough to put it on the stage.

R-S Theatrics brings to life a story hidden from the light under a blanket of many other stories in history that focus on the subject of injustice.

The story opens at the wake of the American Civil War, as we see an optimistic soldier of the South go to fight for his side. Moments later, we see the same man reemerge in the year 1913, about to march in the Confederate Memorial Day Parade, albeit minus one leg; he is older, but is he is wiser? He sings the same song of his youth with just as much conviction: the answer to this question is obvious to us. 

The story focuses on another individual in this town of Marietta, Georgia, on this Memorial Day of 1913, but he is not in his element like the Southern soldier in the opening scene. He is Leo Frank (Peter Winfrey), a workaholic, a Yankee, and a Jew from Brooklyn. He clashes with this alien world, a stranger in a strange land but of his own verdict. He has a more lucrative job in Marietta, but he longs to return to where he came from, the familiar place where he doesn’t stand out, and he longs for this security as his wife, Lucille (played by Jennifer Theby-Quinn) tries to fit into life in the South. As much as Lucille wants to belong, Leo tries to remain separate, never regretting his college education, a thing that is rare in Marietta. He refuses to stoop to a mentality he deems ignorant and simple. In a way, he is as xenophobic as the town, looking on them as a foreign people without trying to understand or accept them.

We quickly get to where the similarities end. A thirteen year old girl named Mary Phagan (Beth Wickenhauser) is found brutally raped and murdered in the factory basement where Leo Frank oversees as a superintendent, and the town is quick to round up the usual suspects. However, in the middle of the Police questionings of Newt Lee, the black night watchman, there comes a change of suspicion. Is there a possibility that our own Leo Frank raped and murdered the girl? Because Leo has been intimate with us until now, we know this is not possible. We have even seen Leo Frank distracted in his office with the young Mary Phagan that very evening when she has come to collect her week’s pay as a factory girl: a whole $1.20. She proudly gets her pay and they two players freeze as the scene changes.

Whether or not we see this exchange between Leo Frank and young Mary at the factory probably would not affect our decision that Leo Frank is innocent. We have had time to look into his world and mind; he is unsatisfied with his new life, self-absorbed, and a bit haughty, but we know him now and we are certain he is incapable of committing such an act. We witnessed his alibi, but it is through good storytelling that we are convinced Leo Frank is harmless.

The town and police, unfortunately, never get a chance to know Leo Frank as we have. He is brought in for questioning like Newt Lee (Shawn Bowers), because all the town needs is at least one minority hanging from a tree. The problem is, they need something bigger than “another negro.” Also, recent homicides have been ignored, and the “Good Old Boy” Governor Slaton (Ken Haller) cannot let a crime like this go unpunished—it would make the town look barbaric.

Add a bit of media to the mix: newspaper reporter Britt Craig (Bradley Behrmann) has finally found his groundbreaking story with Leo Frank, and he’s determined to make the story as big as he can to take the world by storm. All the formula for disaster needs now is political propaganda and blackmail, and we realize Leo Frank is condemned before he recognizes it.

Parade examines more than just “one more story” about racism and discrimination. It’s almost as if we, as a modern culture, are bored with these themes as the turn of the century town of Marietta was with an everyday lynching—we need more as an audience to satisfy us, and ‘Parade,’ as if by our own demands, gives it. The show opens with a simmer and by the end of the first act is a rolling boil with no indication the fire will be lowered anytime soon. ‘Parade,’ more than anything, is self-aware, manipulative of the audience, maybe as a reflection of how persuasive fear and misunderstanding can become when control is set in the hands of the wrong people. 

Leo Frank’s conclusion is uncertain until the end, as we watch to see if he grows from a lamb into a lion to battle every lie told about him. We are ready and eager to stand up to help him, but instead are forced to watch his trial unfold just as helpless as he is. We are outraged and furious, but ultimately powerless in our seats as the invisible wall that separates us as an audience is as impenetrable as the wall of power in between a victim and a mob. Yet in the midst, there comes the rediscovery of trust and faith within the relationship of Leo and Lucille when their marriage is ultimately tested.

The music of Parade is a blend of contemporary musical theatre, rhythmic blues, and gospel, in addition to traditional American melodies. The music numbers run into each other sometimes unexpectedly, as if to mimic the unpredictability of life and choices. Characters trade off moments with each other and juggle intensity, while the group numbers are precise and confident, imitating a unified tradition of thought and mindset.

The cast of R-S Theatrics doesn’t water down the story, nor do they play it safe. They could simply learn their lines and score and tell a powerful story through the genius of Pulitzer-prize-winning writer Alfred Uhry, but R-S has higher expectations than that, and wants its audience to possess the same standards. Watching the seasoned cast rehearse the show, there is no doubt about the emotional energy they have to provide, and this is more challenging than a light performance requires. The sheer intensity the show demands of the artists is exhilarating. It would be easy enough to let the dialogue tell us all we need to know, but the story has a more important message to share that can only be described to an audience through the vision of a director who knows exactly what she wants. 

Artistic Director Christina Rios unleashed Parade after years of waiting for the right time and place. She expects her actors to have definite character goals and to make clear-cut choices. These choices are essential in making a good show into a life-changing show for all involved.

Ultimately, Parade tells a forgotten story sadly overshadowed by other famous acts of prejudice in our history books. Yet, it made its impact just the same, as the Anti-defamation League was formed as a result of Leo Frank’s trial and aftermath, and also prompted the reinstallation of the Klu-Klux-Klan. But is Parade just about race discrimination?

Breaking down the story into two elements, we can examine mankind’s inherent desire for justice and the yearning for acceptance. We find the most basic and primitive aspects of human needs at war with each other. The town’s delicate approval system versus each individual’s intrinsic knowledge of the importance of truth and righteousness is the crux of the story of Parade and Leo Frank. It is not about breaking the town into thinking and rational individuals, but to see the town as a contented whole. A culture is one thought governed by the influence of its rulers, and no matter how the individuals of the small town of Marietta value truth and justice, the fear of isolation and separation from your own kind will win at the end. The people must stay in line, in succession, to survive in the parade of living. Just like Leo Frank’s loneliness as an outcast in Marietta, the town looks on him as a model of what they could become if they should stray from the town’s attitude. This fear is enough to persuade them to do anything to prevent this, including betray their own integrity.

Christina Rios speaks candidly of her initial experience with this groundbreaking musical.

Q: You discovered Parade at a fairly young age. How has your limited understanding as a young person changed the way you experience the story now? Would you like to experience it for the first time at this moment in your life when you can fully absorb the dynamics of it without the filters of familiarity?

Christina Rios: “I found Parade when I was 19, and I can honestly say without any melodrama intended that it in many ways it changed my artistic life. Suddenly I found myself thrust into an arts scene that I had never even contemplated: a place for thought-provoking theatre.  Up until then I had been performing as the ingénue in musicals and light operas, and although I took my job very seriously, I don't know that I ever considered that theatre as an art form could be used to expand the mind and bring about meaningful conversation/thought. 

Then, I introduced ‘Parade’ to a good friend and his roommate one night, about a year or two later, and I found myself up until 2 am in a fully heated debate with his roommate about the merits of the piece and the events surrounding it. It was almost surreal.   

For the first time in my life I was arguing, but happily. We were both making good points (at least I hope I was) and when I left that night, I was emotionally spent, but more fulfilled than I had felt in a long time.

I suppose on some level then and there I knew that I could never go back to performing and creating art "just for fun" anymore - I saw what it could do.  I saw how powerful a medium it was. And I was hooked. 

I am so very, very thankful that I did find this piece at a young age, that my eyes were opened before I created this company - because in hindsight, that moment, that 2am moment, WAS the beginning of R-S...I just didn't know it yet.”

Peter Winfrey, in the role of Leo Frank, also speaks of his experience with R-S Theatrics and Parade, and preparing himself for such a demanding role. 

Q: Were there any challenges you expected to had to overcome, and how did you prepare for them?

Peter Winfrey: “Ha, where to begin with the challenges. 1) I have never been convicted of raping and murdering anyone before. 2) I have never been lynched by a mob. 3) I have never been surrounded by so many people with Southern accents. But on a more serious note, this role has a whole boat-load of challenges. From singing Jason Robert Brown's complex music, to dealing with the fact that I'm in a jail cell for about 2/3 of the show, to handling the sheer weight of the story, this role really has a lot going on. One of the biggest challenges that I've had with bringing Leo to life though is making him an understandable man. What I mean is that throughout the first part of the play, Leo comes off as abrasive, condescending, and a whole variety of unsympathetic things. I was worried that I would get caught up in these negative aspects of Leo's personality and that would cause the audience to not care at all about what happens to him. But what I've found, and what's helping me to overcome this challenge, is that Leo responds to the situation surrounding him in a completely rational and human way. So instead of focusing on how I can soften Leo into a more "sympathetic" character, I've just tried to focus on listening. Always listening. To those Southern accents.”

Q: The writers and production team took a risk in trying to develop a new kind of musical theatre that focused on themes that were risky and not meant to necessarily let their audiences out of the theatre with an overall feeling of well-being and communal security. How do you think this particular show broke through these boundaries and paved the way for others that explore heavy subject matter?

Peter Winfrey: “Funnily enough, my Mom keeps asking me about how "dark" the show is, and whether or not it's funny and dark, or just dark or what. And in that conversation, she keeps bringing up Sweeney Todd as an example of a musical that is horrifying but also hysterically funny. While Parade is certainly quite different than Sweeney Todd, I think it speaks to the fact that themes such as cannibalism and hatred are not totally foreign to musical theatre. 

As for Parade, sad to say, but I think the way that this show broke through so many of those traditions was by sticking to the reality of the actual events. Because, looking at the show itself, all of the musical theatre is still there - there's still the romance between Lucille and Leo, there are still the big song and dance numbers, characters still spontaneously break out into song. It's just that the writers have warped this horrific story onto the stage. I think the success of the show is honestly a testament to how well the show maintains the traditions of musical theatre, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the historical events.” 

R-S Theatrics’s motto is ‘Where the Story is Everything.’ We are convinced the company is not going to shy away from future opportunities to break the rules and explore other demanding and thought-provoking experiences to share with the public.

Rinaldi Parade 2

Rinaldi Parade 3

Rinaldi Parage 4
Photos by Gerry Love

The cast includes the talents of: Peter Winfrey, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Beth Wickenhauser, Marshall Jennings, Ken Haller, Caitlin Mickey, Macia Noorman, Maggie Murphy, Zach Wachter, Shawn Bowers, Kay Love, Kevin Hester, Bradley Behrmann, Robert Breig, Derick Smith, Alexis Coleman, and GP Hunsaker.

Directed by Christina Rios, Musical Direction by Leah Luciano.

Performances run September 6-15th; Thurs-Sat performances at 8pm, Sunday performances at 7pm at:

The Ivory Theatre
7620 Michigan Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63111

Tickets $25 General Admission; $20 Students/Older Adults.

Winner in 1999 of Two Tony Awards, Co-conceived by Harold Prince and Music and Lyrics Jason Robert Brown, Book and Libretti by Alfred Uhry.