On Aug. 17, 1915, Leo Frank, a Cornell-educated Jewish industrialist, was lynched just outside Atlanta. The atrocity marked the culmination of an ugly conflict that began with the 1913 murder of a child laborer named Mary Phagan, who toiled for pennies an hour in Atlanta’s National Pencil Factory. Frank, the plant superintendent, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, though he always maintained his innocence. He appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, losing each time, whereupon Georgia Gov. John Slaton commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. The decision so angered the general populace that a mob organized by a Superior Court judge, the son of a U.S. senator and a former governor abducted Frank from a well-guarded state prison and hanged him from an oak tree.
The lynching of Frank seems like an incident out of another America, one of gray-bearded Civil War veterans and Jim Crow, Model Ts and ragtime. Woodrow Wilson was president. “The Birth of a Nation” was playing in theaters. The story, however, remains very much alive. Throughout the fall, “Parade,” the Alfred Uhry musical inspired by the affair, has been drawing crowds to the Mark Taper Forum. On Nov. 8, KCET will broadcast “The People v. Leo Frank,” the first full-length documentary to explore the topic.
When T.R. Knight chants the Shema blindfolded and with a noose tightening around his neck in the role of Leo Frank, his character’s terror is palpable. The scene takes place as the inevitable tragic dénouement of the historical musical “Parade,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, the story of the anti-Semitic trial and lynching in 1915 of a pencil-factory manager accused of brutally murdering a 13-year-old girl. In this production, Frank lives again via this boyish, 36-year-old actor best known for his part in the original cast of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
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