Lynch Law Lives on Stage and in Troy Davis Execution

Themes of bigotry and and injustice run through "Parade" and the Troy Davis execution.

By SHARE

When you visit Atlanta, ask about the death of Troy Davis, an execution by lethal injection as miles of people across land and sea kept a vigil until it came to pass at 11:08 p.m. last Wednesday evening.

Nice to know law and order—or do I mean lynch law and order?—prevails in the stubborn deep South, whatever the world thinks. Davis was put to death despite a slew of supporters, including dignitaries and law enforcement experts, who found shades of reasonable doubt in his murder case.

In a stroke of amazing timing and relevance, Georgia's capital city is the setting of a tragical musical, Parade, based on a true story of a 1915 lynching. I just saw the brilliant production on opening night at Ford's Theatre on 10th Street here in Washington—the very spot where Abraham Lincoln was shot at close range, by someone he never saw coming in the dark. A vengeful son of the South, an actor, played a Shakespearean scene for all he was worth—MacBeth, Lincoln's favorite. 

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On that tragic April night, Lincoln was heartily enjoying a comedy. Similarly, all seems bright at first in this Ford's Theatre play. Parade's exuberant ensemble charms with spring songs, costumes, and revelry as the curtain opens on Atlanta's celebration of "Confederate Memorial Day" in April 1913. But the holiday itself reveals the defiance of Atlanta's white society, keeping the anti-Yankee candles burning. 

The theatre director, Paul R. Tetreault, expertly captures the tableau of a wounded world that tells itself, over and over, that it was never vanquished, despite the festering sore of the Recent Unpleasantness.

An old guard culture, hostile to outsiders, was the downfall for a Jewish New Yorker in his early 30s, Leo Frank, who made a good living as a factory superintendent. He was accused and arrested of a gruesome child murder. Playwright Alfred Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy, wrote the book for the Broadway play, launched onstage in 1998. Uhry has family ties to the story, in true Southern storytelling style. There are no secrets down there, except the ones they choose to tell years later. 

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Parade is no picnic as it wends its way through the Southern justice system on a murder case that became a national cause, like the Davis case. Frank was found guilty of fatally strangling a girl worker in his pencil factory. When he was sentenced to hang, there was an outcry from quarters who felt a virulent strain of anti-Yankee anti-Semitism played a part in the verdict.  

The governor of Georgia a century ago, John Slaton, went against the will of Atlanta's townspeople. His character, portrayed by Stephen F. Schmidt, exhibits courage and pathos, clear about the consequences of bucking the establishment. Governor Slaton reviews the conflicting evidence in Frank's case and grants him clemency: life imprisonment instead of death by the state's hand. That is precisely what Georgia state officials refused to do for Troy Davis.

Lead actor Euan Morton telegraphs Frank's desperate plight with impressive restraint. Jenny Fellner, the actress who plays his wife Lucille, sparkles onstage with her singing voice and her journey to loving her husband, locked up and alone, more than she ever did. 

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Relentlessly, the end closes in. A well-connected mob of white men break into the jail where Frank is held, to take him for a long night ride. It was a well-planned thing. In the show as in life, the hooded men string Frank up—as he prays in Hebrew—and hang him, with picture postcards to show for it all. Very nice.  

So if you get to Marietta, ask them about the tree where Frank was hanged. Yes, Georgia has lots of colorful local history, and the fun part is trying to see where the past ends and the present begins. Both the Davis and Frank convictions were reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied relief or mercy in both cases. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous justice, scolded Georgia for what he called a form of "lynch law" in Frank's trial. But he was a damn Yankee in the minority. 

Tetreault and others chose this timely tale to inaugurate The Lincoln Legacy Project, an initiative to spark a national dialogue on overcoming violence based on hate or bigotry. Parade's history lesson could not be more sobering. Early in the 20th century, lynchings of black men were at an all-time high in the Southern states (including Maryland.)  This was a spur to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Ari Roth of Theater J, a partner in co-producing the play, notes Frank met the same fate as so many black men at the hands of mobs. Parade, Roth said, is a "galvanizing reminder of what can go wrong in our country when hate speech and raging angers aren't tempered and set to rest."  

Amen. And let the conversation begin.

Clarification: Paul Tetreault is the Director of the Ford’s Theatre Society, as noted. Stephen Rayne directed the current Ford's Theatre production of Parade.

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