The Garden Theatre, Winter Garden, FL

Book by Alfred Uhry

Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

Directed by Joseph C. Walsh

Musical Direction Safin Karim

Starring Sean Powell and Cherry Gonzalez

Leo Frank (Powell) is a fish out of water. He’s Jewish and very Lower East Side, but he got a great job in Reconstruction Atlanta running a pencil factory. Atlanta had largely recovered from General Sherman’s visit, but animosity runs deep, and Leo doesn’t really fit into society. When a young female employee is found dead in the basement of the factory, there are two prime suspects: the Black maintenance man Newt Lee (Kenan J. Harris), and Leo. It’s a front page scandal, and Governor Slaton (John Gracey) tells up-and-coming Hugh Dorsey (Kyl Adkins), “Hang one of them.” Newt is Black, but he outranks Leo socially, and Leo is thrown into the prison farm system. Only his wife Lucille (Gonzales) supports him, and the pair have one last meeting before the Ku Klux Klan does what the state can’t: remove their perceived threat of Jewish infiltration. God forbid there be intelligent people making rational decisions in the South.

On an enormous set, cheated back to look even taller, we see the depths of human cruelty. Governor Slaton exists to incite the plot, and these are the days before forensic evidence and DNA testing. No alibi, no witness, no motive, but an outraged and bloodthirsty community spells doom for Leo. The real decision weighed on this stage isn’t guilt or innocence, but rather Black vs. Jewish, and since Leo is from New York, he’s the damn Yankee whose death will appease the crowd. There are occasional flashes of kindness: the warder who allows Leo and his wife Lucille one last date was a highlight of the show. An impending death confuses Leo. He dislikes the South as much as the South dislikes him, but he sees himself as a quiet, honest man doing a job and providing jobs for others, low paying and miserable as they may be. The lynch trial at the end shows extra legal justice still could be dispatched, both then and today. Is there a moral here? If anything, the melting pot is a myth, and it’s better stay where you came from, or else.

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