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Lynch Law Lives On Stage And In Troy Davis Execution

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.

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.

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.

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.

By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, September 26, 2011

September 27, 2011 - Posted by | Bigotry, Human Rights, Justice, Politics, Racism, Right Wing, States | , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. This is an excellent analysis and thoughtful post.
    As Martina Correia so eloquently put it, speaking of her brother Troy and life in Savannah. “If the trees could speak. they would talk of a story of a Savannah that you never thought would exist. ”
    She continues, and describes the fear people live by, the rock the boat mentality that still prevails in the deep south,especially when your a person of color.
    The Davis tragedy has reminds us of how much injustice still exist. This nation has allot of work to do.

    Like

    Comment by Sasha (@sasha031) | September 27, 2011 | Reply


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