BWW Feature: PARADE Marches In to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts with Lessons to Teach
Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't be a bad problem to have. During rehearsals for the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts' production of the Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry musical PARADE, director and Theatre Department Co-Chair David Loudermilk realized his student cast would need some hard lessons on embodying the intense negative feelings of prejudice. "I think it's an interesting balance," Loudermilk comments. "With this generation being so open and accepting and understanding of things - especially here at DA - it's hard for the kids to go to the 'other side' of it. They're struggling with getting angry. They just don't know how."
And they'd need that anger. The musical is based on the unjust 1913 arrest, trial, and anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory supervisor who was accused of killing a 13-year old girl who worked in his factory, and the tireless efforts of his wife, Lucille, and the Governor of Georgia to uncover evidence that might clear his name. The final product, which was performed on the Douglas Anderson mainstage during the first weekend of November, demonstrated that the students had indeed learned those lessons. Under Loudermilk's masterful direction and staging, the high school performers delivered the story with remarkable professionalism and surprising maturity.
When a parent from the Board of DA's Theatre Boosters organization suggested that a local speaker affiliated with the Anti-Defamation League talk to the cast, Loudermilk jumped at the opportunity. What could be better than hearing from an organization whose own existence and creation by the B'nai B'rith was actually catalyzed by the death of Leo Frank? With a twenty-year career in anti-discrimination, bias, diversity, anti-Semitism, and racism both in England and the United States, including work in the United Nations, Atlanta, and on Capitol Hill, speaker Rebecca Bennett presented an hour-long talk and discussion with the PARADE cast shortly before their show would open.
Using a graphic called the "Pyramid of Hate," Bennett presented the students with an ADL tool that, as she described it, "shows how quickly hate can escalate if it's not stopped." Loudermilk recalls that "the whole cast was very involved with the presentation. They were very connected to her - even though she was very concerned that she would be speaking to high school students. I kept trying to tell her that these high school students are not your typical high school students. And when she left, she said 'You were right ... I get it now.'"
Bennett's words certainly held special significance for Senior Liam Wirsansky, who played Leo Frank in the production, due to both his leading role and the fact that he is Jewish. As one of a half dozen or so Jewish actors in the 40-member cast, Wirsansky had a strong connection to the piece. At first he was surprised that he had not heard of the case - "It was shocking to me that I didn't know, because of how monumental it is in the history of Georgia, the South, and Jewish culture." As a result, he made it a priority to do some 'leg work' of his own. "I did a lot of my own research on the trial and the time period," Wirsansky shares. "One of the things I found out about was that the result of this trial created a huge migration of Jews out of Georgia. A large number of the Jewish population of Georgia left after this happened for fear of their life."
Being one of the few Jewish members of the cast also meant that he sometimes had to explain some of the Jewish references in the musical, such as the final prayer, the Sh'ma, prior to Frank's lynching, the decidedly non-kosher jailhouse food, and the wedding-based "chair lift" in the courtroom climax. "There were some questions about it ... The majority of the cast, who weren't Jewish, weren't familiar with the Jewish religion. So, I did a presentation on Rosh Hashanah for the cast, because it fell on one of the rehearsal dates and I had some questions about the Sh'ma. I also did some character work, too, so I wore a yarmulke and tzitzit to school for a day so that I could get the feeling of being an outsider, of being judged and looked at."
Wirsansky also noted his family's reaction to the performance. "My parents were deeply touched. I don't think they went in expecting to see something that powerful. I didn't tell them the whole story - I wanted them to experience it. Of course, they had questions, but they seemed very affected in a way that's important ... a lot of people came out that way." He also seemed unsurprised that there were some unexpected criticisms that spoke to the theme of the musical. "I did hear some critiques that I didn't play him 'Jewish enough.'" Wirsansky explains, "They didn't get that I was deeply in touch with my Jewish side, that I needed to 'show it more.' I don't think that they understood the time period, because I wouldn't have been able to do that." For Wirsansky, this was likely one of the roles of a lifetime and the personal connection to the material made it even more significant.
Some of Rebecca Bennett's final words clearly held her student audience rapt with attention. "I'm all for passion," she told them. "I think passion is awesome. What I worry about is apathy ... when people stop caring, when people just think about themselves. We're in a very interesting time. I never thought I would see what is happening in this country and it's happening so fast, it's mind boggling. It's 'I'm on the inside, and you're on the outside.' We talk about being a bystander. I'm sure DA's a great place, but people are people and things happen. I'm sure there are times when I've been guilty of being a bystander. It takes a lot of courage to be in that moment and say 'that's not cool, it's not going to fly.' The most important thing is to make sure that you're safe. You're going to put on this incredible play - this is so important. And the fact that you guys are doing this as teenagers, you can teach people of my age, even older, so much. This is something we never want to see happen again. And we all have the power to have an effect."