Musical about anti-Semitism ‘postponed indefinitely’ by Point Park
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Theater'Parade' tells true story of lynching of Leo Frank in 1915

Musical about anti-Semitism ‘postponed indefinitely’ by Point Park

Some students were concerned with issues of race in 'Parade,' and triggering images, including Confederate flags.

Promotional image. (Courtesy of Point Park)
Promotional image. (Courtesy of Point Park)

Point Park University’s spring production of “Parade,” a musical that tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jew lynched in Marietta, Georgia in 1915, has been “postponed indefinitely” following protests by some Conservatory Theatre students.

The Tony Award-winning show was scheduled to be performed in April and was to be directed by Rob Ashford, a Point Park alumnus and Tony-Award winning choreographer who worked on the Broadway production of “Parade” in 1998.

Frank was a Jewish factory manager who was wrongly accused, convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged raping and murdering of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta in 1913. After several appeals failed, his sentence eventually was commuted to life in prison by Georgia Governor John Slaton, citing evidence not presented at trial.

In 1915 Frank was kidnapped from prison by a group of men and lynched in Phagan’s hometown. He was pardoned posthumously by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1986.

Frank’s trial, conviction, appeals and death garnered national media attention and inflamed anti-Semitic feelings throughout the country. Both the reformation of the then-defunct Klu Klux Klan and the creation of the Anti-Defamation League have been attributed to the case.

Last fall, in anticipation of producing “Parade,” Steven Breese, artistic director of Point Park’s Pittsburgh Playhouse and dean of the university’s Conservatory of Performing Arts, praised the musical, saying its message was timely.

“This particular piece speaks to our society now in an important way,” Breese told the Chronicle. “Injustice is at the center of it and we have to look at what we consider just and unjust and how we treat people. These things are really on the surface of society right now.”

But some Point Park students viewed “Parade” differently, and in recent weeks argued that there are too few minority roles in the show. They also took issue with the show’s conclusion that implies that Jim Conley, a black janitor and Frank’s main accuser, was the actual perpetrator of the crimes, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

There is historical evidence, however, that Conley was guilty of the assault and murder of Phagan. Among that evidence was the sworn statement of Alonzo Mann, who worked at the factory as a teenager. In 1982, Mann told The New York Times that he saw Conley carrying Phagan’s corpse to the basement where she eventually was found. Conley threatened to kill Mann if he ever revealed the truth, Mann told The Times.

Point Park students also protested “Parade” because of its difficult imagery — including Confederate flags, KKK hoods and a lynching — pointing to “their lack of faith in both the conservatory and the university’s ability to properly ensure the well-being of students participating in the production,” according to The Globe, the university’s student newspaper.

“Students were also concerned that this year would not be the correct time to put on the production, due to concerns of injustices faced by minorities both within the university and the city of Pittsburgh,” The Globe reported.

“Pippin” will be produced in place of “Parade.”

“Over the past three weeks, leaders of the Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University and the Conservatory of Performing Arts have held wide-ranging, honest discussions with students, faculty and staff regarding issues of diversity, inclusion and equity,” said Paul Hennigan, president of Point Park, in a prepared statement. “As we continue our dialogue and work together to enhance the culture at Point Park in a way that will lead to a more inclusive community, we have made the decision to postpone indefinitely our production of the show Parade, which was scheduled for April. Through my involvement in these discussions with the Point Park community, it is clear to me that our priority as a University must be our students, and we cannot allow a production to move forward that could overshadow our educational and developmental mission. We also would not be serving the best interests of our loyal patrons or the show Parade, a widely acclaimed and important musical that generates robust conversation about social awareness and societal change.”

A Point Park spokesperson said the university had no comment regarding the postponement of the show beyond Hennigan’s statement.

“Parade” has been performed by other university theater programs without incident in years past — including at Point Park in 2009 — and is scheduled to be produced this coming semester at Kent State University.

Boston University students performed “Parade” in 2016, directed by Clay Hopper, artistic associate at Boston University’s Center for American Performance. Hopper praised the musical for its thoughtful examination of the persecution of those considered to be outsiders.

The show “speaks very eloquently to being ‘other,’ and ‘otherized’ in America,” and in light of last year’s anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh, “Parade” is “particularly salient,” Hopper told the Chronicle.

Calling the cancellation of the show “a tragedy,” Hopper acknowledged that he was not surprised it happened, noting a trend on campuses toward “a simple, reflexive reactionary response to any material that in any way broaches the difficult — and I think rightly difficult — subject of race in America.”

“Any time there is an examination of a minority group or a group that is perceived as marginalized, and it depicts people who do the marginalizing of that group, I found that people just don’t even want to see that represented,” Hopper said. “I find that to be true of students. I don’t find that to be true of faculty members, I don’t find that to be true of most grown-ups that live in the world. I find it to be essentially intrinsic to the campus left.”

Hopper noted that the musical number that opens the second act of “Parade,” and is sung by African Americans, is particularly profound in showing the relationship between the black and Jewish communities in the South of the early 20th century.

“It’s really quite apt and it’s very astute,” he explained. “There is nothing in the play, I think, that speaks of racism in any way other than saying that it is a horrific thing that ends in killing people that are innocent. It makes me wonder whether the people who pushed to have it canceled have ever actually read it or seen it.”

“If you can’t do ‘Parade’ in this moment with the rise of anti-Semitic violence all over the world, I’m not sure what you can do,” Hopper said. “It’s striking to me. It really is.”

Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre students also forced the cancellation of the musical “Adding Machine,” which was supposed to open in December. That show portrays racism, homophobia and sexism, and some students “were concerned that it was not clear enough that the show was ‘mocking’ the characters expressing racist sentiments,” according to The Globe.

Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama, which is focused on creative and academic freedom in the arts, has been following the student protests at Point Park.

“With the cancellation of ‘Adding Machine’ and ‘Parade,’ it is evident that there is a great need within the Point Park theatre program for deep conversations about how race and ethnicity are represented in their productions, beginning with play selection, and perhaps encompassing their curriculum as well,” Sherman said in an email.

“There must be a place for challenging, socially aware work on stages everywhere, especially in academic programs,” he continued. “The thoughtful facilitation of that work for the participating artists and audiences, the contextualization of that work, is vital. As someone who advocates against censorship, seeing shows shut down worries me deeply, because arts must be allowed to be thorny and difficult. As someone who vigorously supports the diversification of theatre, for too long dominated by white male writers, I believe in work from a wide range of artists that authentically and conscientiously addresses gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability. I hope that the promised exploration at Point Park will include artists and educators of color, and experts in diversity, so that the faculty and the students can forge a way forward together.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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