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Garden Theatre holds a mirror to Central Florida's culture of bigotry and hate, past and present

Parade, the musical about the lynching that reawakened the KKK, gets a showing in a former Klan stronghold.

Keenan Harris as Jim Conley, who historians believe was the actual killer, testifies that Leo Frank (Sean Powell, seated) killed Mary Phagan. It's the first time a Black man's word was believed over a white man's in court. Photo: Steven Miller

There is a haunting moment in Parade when Leo Frank — the musical's Jewish protagonist who is falsely convicted of the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan — begins to sing the Sh’ma, the prayer that devout Jews say during morning and evening prayers … and before death.

For much of the musical, set in Atlanta in 1913, Frank, the last person to admit to seeing the girl alive, has been in prison or on trial. The politically ambitious prosecutor is faced with two possible suspects: a Black factory janitor and the Jewish factory manager. “Ain’ enough, hanging another nigra,” he complains. “Gotta do better.”

And so, Frank’s neighbors, the pencil factory workers he managed, his housekeeper and even people he’s never met are enticed to lie to police, the prosecutor, a tabloid newspaper and in court. They paint the shy, cold, distant Yankee as a voracious sexual predator with a predilection for young girls. Drawing on well-worn tropes of Jewish lechery and greed, the tabloid, owned by future Georgia Senator Tom Watson, whips the city into an anti-Semitic bloodlust, clamoring for Frank’s head.

When Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton re-examines the evidence and commutes Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, a posse of wealthy Atlantans, including Watson, kidnaps Frank from prison and drives him to a Marietta farm to exact their own “justice.”

There, blindfolded and bound, knowing he is about to die, Frank sings in a soft, quavering voice, Sh’ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu adonai ehad. (Hear O’Israel. The Lord is our God. The Lord is One.) When he’s done, the noose is slipped around his neck.

Leo Frank Courtesy of

NO SPOILERS HERE. The Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) musical with music/lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, now onstage at the Garden Theatre where it runs through March 13, is based on the true story of Leo Frank’s 1913 imprisonment and trial and lynching in 1915. Google Leo Frank, and you can read all about the 29-year-old from Brooklyn who ends up in Atlanta because his wife’s uncle offered him a job. As a Yankee and a Jew — living in the Atlanta rebuilt from the ashes barely 50 years after the Union’s General Sherman burned it to the ground — Frank is the consummate outsider. He peppers his speech with Yiddish. He doesn’t understand the fuss about Confederate Memorial Day. “Confederate Memorial Day is asinine,” he tells his wife Lucille. “Why would anyone want to celebrate losing a war?” It makes him an easy target for an ethically challenged prosecutor with an eye on the governor’s mansion to “do better.”

Leo Frank’s extrajudicial execution was the first known anti-Jewish lynching in the United States. This event not only re-energized the Ku Klux Klan, it expanded the hate group’s mission to include terrorizing Jews, Catholics, immigrants and communists in addition to Blacks, according to The Second Coming of the KKK by Linda Gordon.

The Garden Theatre’s production of Parade comes at a time when white nationalism has found purchase in the Republican Party, and anti-Semitism is again flourishing globally, nationally and right here in Orange County. And it demonstrates that once again (as with his immigration reform staging of Man of La Mancha) Artistic Director Joseph Walsh produces daring work that reflects the zeitgeist.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) documented 108 white supremacist events in 2021 — more than double the events held in 2020 and the most recorded in the past five years. The night Parade opened at the Garden Theatre, the white nationalist America First Political Action Conference was held at Orlando’s One World Marriott. AFPAC is a kind of satellite event to the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, held Feb. 24-27, that seeks to normalize white nationalism. Republican U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene have spoken at both.

After Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton commuted Frank's sentence from death to life in prison, 25 armed men kidnapped Leo Frank from prison and exacted their own justice. The lynching reawakened the Ku Klux Klan. Photo: Gary Doster

January saw two small neo-Nazi demonstrations with a swastika and “Vaxx the Jews” emblazoned on banners that hung from an I-4 overpass — counted as part of the 40-percent increase in such incidents last year, says the ADL. The demonstrators also held “It’s okay to be anti-Semitic” and “Jews Aren’t White” signs, while shouting slurs at motorists near Waterford Lakes Town Center. Three men were arrested for assaulting a Jewish University of Central Florida student, who confronted demonstrators; two were charged with hate crimes.

ALTHOUGH PARADE IS A STUDY in how Atlanta’s city and state officials were willing to ride a wave of anti-Semitic bloodlust for political gain (the prosecutor in Leo Frank’s trial went on to become a Georgia governor while the leader of the lynch mob, Tom Watson, became a senator), staging it at the Garden is a subtle nod to Winter Garden’s own troubled history as “a major Klan center,” as historian and author James C. Clark, who teaches history at UCF, told VoxPopuli in an email.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Winter Garden was one of Orange County’s three KKK chapters (along with Apopka and Orlando). In 1991, as a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, Clark wrote about the Klan’s presence within county government and law enforcement agencies in an article based on 3,000 pages of FBI files containing “sworn statements by dozens of Klansmen and their victims.”

Clark wrote that the FBI files of the “vicious 300-member Klan” read like a “Who’s Who of Orange County”: County Commissioner John Talton; Mose Bryant, former Ocoee councilman and marshal; Charles Limpus Sr., clerk of the Criminal Court; Winter Park City Manager Earl Y. Harpole; Apopka Police Chief William Dunnaway; and Winter Garden’s own Justice of the Peace Charles Mann “Pete” Tucker.

Each chapter had a “wrecking crew,” Clark wrote. They would take targets for a “ride,” frequently to a favorite Klan spot known as the “stomping grounds,” a little-traveled clay road near the intersection of Hwy. 50 and Avalon Road, out by the ranch where Tucker raised cattle and grew citrus. Indeed, Melvin Womack, the Black citrus worker abducted by four white men from his home in Oakland in 1951 was found at the “stomping grounds” before he died two days later.

ALFRED UHRY, who won a Tony for Parade, TOLD PLAYBILL in 1998 that he wrote the musical because growing up in Atlanta in the 1940s, no one in his family would ever speak of the lynching despite having a connection to the Frank family: Uhry’s great uncle owned the pencil factory; his grandmother was friends with Frank’s widow; and his family “had been victims of the anti-Semitism that flared up in Atlanta as a consequence.”

Two of Parade’s performances, including the one on March 11, include post-show Talk Backs with representatives from the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida, which are important for opening up dialogue about anti-Semitism, deconstructing the dangerous trope that “Jews run the world,” which led to the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis. But Walsh’s production resonates deeply here in Winter Garden, too, which has remade itself as one of Money Magazine's Best Places to Live. Perhaps this tragic musical, where evil triumphs over innocence, will stir a deeper examination, and ultimately reconciliation, as Ocoee is doing, of Winter Garden's own heritage.

Garden Theatre

Box Office: 407-877-4736

160 W. Plant Street, Winter Garden

March 10: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (ASL interpreted)

March 11: 7:30 p.m., includes Talk Back with Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida

March 12: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

March 13: 2 p.m.


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