Returning from the theater on the Red Line, I was joined by another bicyclist near the handicapped zone, which offers the most space for bicycles on the crowded train. I didn’t know the guy, who was in his mid-20s, thin, blond. Later, we would notice that we were the only two Caucasians in that car. Before the doors closed, a guy in an electric wheelchair with a stump for one arm rolled in and both of us cyclists cleared a passage so he could get to the handicapped area we’d been occupying. He waved in appreciation, saying something to the other cyclist.
“Huh?” the cyclist replied, having not heard or understood.
That was enough to launch a sermon on how Native Americans, which the wheelchair guy claimed to be, incorporated the word “huh” because white people had used it so frequently.
“I didn’t know ‘huh?’ was such an insult,” the bicyclist said to me softly, and we started a quiet conversation about bicycling.
The wheelchair guy took offense that we weren’t listening to his sermon, which now became peppered with expressions like “Birds of a feather flock together” and “blue-eyed devils.” When he flashed four $100 notes he was carrying, a guy by the window told him sternly to put his money away, for his own safety. As the other bicyclist and I continued our conversation, I overheard snippets of the wheelchair guy’s sermon, which was now a treatise on the presumed superiority and actual stupidity of white people, and how our offense (of holding a private conversation about bicycles) was compounded by our being “gay,” a reference that soon descended into “faggots.” He also added that he’s a Vietnam vet, that he used to blow people’s brains out, and that he carries a concealed weapon. (When asked by a passenger to produce it, he claimed he couldn’t find it.) In the course of about 20 seconds, the man played all his bigotry and homophobia cards, trying to incite a race riot.
The cyclist and I stared tensely into space as the insults washed over us, and I felt within me the dueling impulses of compassion for the plight of a mentally unhinged vet reduced to gratuitously insulting strangers from his wheelchair, and the conflicting desire to turn over that wheelchair, if only that would shut him up. Could such a hateful deed possibly be construed as self-defense? Never.
I was imagining the headline: “Blue-Eyed Devils Attack Native American Vietnam Vet Paraplegic in Wheelchair!”
Bigotry is complicated, which brings us to the absorbing, reductive, well-meaning treatment of the theme in Alfred Uhry, Jason Robert Brown and Harold Prince’s 1998 musical, Parade, currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum. The musical is part of Prince’s mission to bring darker themes to American musical theater. The book by Uhry — a playwright who’s built a career on stories of growing up Jewish in the American Deep South — couldn’t be much darker, based as it is on the 1913 murder of a 13-year-old white girl in the Atlanta pencil factory where she worked. For reasons of political expediency, the local pols rigged the case to pin the murder on the only outsider they could find who wasn’t black, Leo Frank (T.R. Knight), the raised-in-Brooklyn Jewish husband of a native daughter, Lucille Frank (Lara Pulver).
After Leo Frank was convicted on circumstantial evidence and buckets of false testimony, the governor (Michael Berresse) buried his future political ambitions by responding to concerns from the North. He commuted Frank’s death sentence, buying him time for the case to be reopened. Even so, things didn’t end well. In fact, so dark was the story, said Stephen Sondheim, that the composer turned down Prince’s offer to write the music. And if it’s too dark for Sondheim, it’s really dark. Greek-tragedy dark.
That was probably a wise move by Sondheim, whose gift of blistering, contrapuntal irony would have run the risk of having the musical be a parody of itself, a risk even Brown’s easier-going ragtime-pop musical stylings don’t entirely avoid.
The Broadway production, featuring a central tree with a metaphoric branch just waiting for a noose, got all kinds of critical respect, but lasted a squeak over two months in the marketplace. Then again, it did open in December, during the holiday season, when people aren’t exactly rushing out to the theater to see a lynching.
Director/choreographer Rob Ashford held such respect for the effort that he restaged it for London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2007, which is the basis for the version at the Taper. There’s no lynching tree, thank goodness. Christopher Oram’s muted-gray set of slatted boards features an overhanging Confederate mural, which Neil Austin’s lighting design brings into sharp focus or reduces to a tattered vestige. Pinpoint lights strategically illuminate single faces, like angels, watching the proceedings below. Ashford’s stark, snapping, emblematic choreography fulfills Prince’s mission of nudging the art form toward the gravitas of opera.
So many of the reviews have credited the skill of the storytelling, and that’s where I part ways with them. Act 1 is a terrifying and unrelenting study in how a mob conspires against an outsider. Its depiction of persecution contains a comic book sensibility — so strategically, morally infuriating, it asks nothing more of us than to react with righteous indignation, to root for the victim and to rage at the community of villains. (Can’t see the Atlanta tourist bureau ever sponsoring this show.)
When even the local children bear false witness against Leo Frank, one starts to hear echoes of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But Miller at least took the time to dramatize the underlying causes of why kids would commit such heinous perjury.
At the end of Act 1, one’s only thought is that this has to change course, because its trajectory has been so unwavering. And so it does, in a way that’s entirely predictable.
Not all of the Georgians are depicted as scum, by any means. By Act 2, the governor knowingly commits political suicide by opening an investigation into Frank’s kangaroo trial, and his wife (Charlotte d’Amboise) stands as much by his side as Lucille Frank stands so inspiringly by her man. With the song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’ ” — referring to the concern from the North about this miscarriage of justice — one feels the cavalry riding in for the rescue. We know, along with Uhry, that such a rescue is more desirable than plausible, so he reverses course yet again, as though such reversals constitute nuance or complexity. In fact, they reveal a saga based on emotional manipulation and snagged on the barbed wire strung between a comic book and a national myth. The musical operates from medieval metaphysics, from the separations rather than the conjoining of good and evil, which is exactly why it’s not like an ancient Greek legend. It plays into stereotypes (P.J. Griffith Bible-thumping villain Tom Watson is like Tartuffe stranded in a production of Twelve Angry Men) rather than asking us to reconsider them. Tony Kushner’s remembrances of racism in Caroline, or Change concern the intricate presumptuousness residing inside a white boy in the Deep South toward his live-in black maid. The staggeringly complex, real-life confrontation with a Vietnam vet on a subway train in Los Angeles forced me to peer inside myself, rather than merely arousing an impenetrable sense of Right and Wrong. Compared to these stories, Parade is beautifully decorated child’s play, filled with caressing music and asking very little of adults other than to nod and agree that bigotry and persecution cause bad things to happen to good people.
Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.
PARADE | By ALFRED UHRY, JASON ROBERT BROWN and HAROLD PRINCE | A DONMAR WAREHOUSE production at the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. Through November 15 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org