Parade: An interview with cast member, Jacob Ben-Shmuel
Drama Chair Daniel Gary Busby sat down with cast member Jacob Ben-Schmuel to discuss UCI Drama's upcoming production of Parade:
Drama Chair Daniel Gary Busby: Aside from the Tony award-winning musical score, what is it about Parade that drew you to the material?
Jacob Ben-Shmuel: I was drawn to the composer/lyricist. Jason Robert Brown has a way of making messy, difficult stories absolutely beautiful, and in doing so he does not clean away any of the mess. This is especially true with Parade. The story begins not with Leo and Lucille Frank, but with a confederate soldier going off to war, and his song becomes a major through-line throughout the piece, tying it together. This brilliant opening immediately places the audience firmly in the world of the south, and throughout the show the people of Georgia, instead of being treated like traitors, are held in the highest regard. They are given a chance to tell their side of the story. It would have been easy enough to tell only one side, but this show has the potential to explore the perspective of every one of its characters. In this way, Parade is wonderfully fearless, and I cannot wait to jump into building its world.
DGB: This show seems to fit very well with UCI Drama’s season theme, THEM!, which looks at society’s xenophobic tendencies, and the human propensity to point fingers in blame at “the other.” Do you feel this story – set in 1913 Georgia – is relevant today?
JBS: Parade is, like most stories concerning prejudice, painfully relevant today. In a social and political climate as divisive and extreme as the one we live in now, it is so incredibly easy to place blame on "the other," whether that means illegal immigrants or Muslims or the members of an opposing political party. Everyone is guilty of this in some form or another, and because of this we are all, in some ways, blinded by our disdain for someone who does not look, talk or think the way we do. Leo Frank looks down upon the people of Georgia. He thinks himself better than them, and they can tell. That is part of the reason he was convicted. He never took the time to understand them, and they never took the time to understand him. I am excited that we are putting this show up in the midst of today's increasingly hateful political rhetoric. I hope that we as a production team together with the audience will find ourselves looking at an old mirror, reflecting the exact same problems we face today.
DGB: Parade is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent convicted of murdering his 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. How deeply did you research the history of this case and its historical context, and how has it affected your “relationship” with Leo?
JBS: I wanted to go into this rehearsal process with as much knowledge as possible, and there is so much information out there to parse through that I'm afraid I have only scratched the surface. I found out very quickly that people can look at the exact same evidence and arrive at drastically different conclusions, so it was not enough for me to rely solely on the writings of historians who consider Leo to be innocent. Instead, I tried to focus on learning as much as I could about where he came from and the kind of person he might have been so that I can cross reference those historical truths with the truths portrayed in the show. The fact is, there is substantial evidence which was put forth during the trial that points to Leo being guilty, and there is substantial evidence uncovered before and after the trial that points to his being innocent, and I could not ignore either of those sides of the story without cheapening the narrative. Life is not made up of certainties, so why should a play be any different?
DGB: How has researching and developing the character of Leo Frank spoken to your own (family) history and identity, if at all?
JBS: Discovering and developing Leo Frank has made me realize how lucky I am to be living as a Jew in the United States in the Twenty-First century. I cannot recall ever having been looked down upon because of my religion. Now, that doesn't mean I speak for every Jewish person in the U.S., in fact I'm sure that I do not, but I have certainly been lucky. Unfortunately, it has also helped me to see just how unwelcome people of some other faiths and ethnicities and skin colors still are in this country and around the world. Even in my own family I see prejudice that before seemed almost harmless, but seeing the damage that can be caused by hatred that has been passed down for generations, I can no longer see it as such. Leo Frank was seen in the South as not just a Jew, but somewhat of a Northern invader. He came from Brooklyn with his accent and a disdain for the people of the South, and he became the superintendent of a factory where girls toiled for hours a day and got paid ten cents an hour. He was the symbol of the South's unwelcome northern transformation, and that helped me to realize how easily I have, in the past, lumped other people into a category because of subconscious stereotypes I did not know I held onto. I believe we all do this, as it is easier to focus hatred and fear onto a single group or person rather than a system or idea.
DGB: Some of the language in this production, true to the vernacular of the day, is difficult to hear now; how do you anticipate the rehearsal process will be different when working with material that has the potential to be inflammatory/hurtful?
JBS: I expect to run into some difficult conversations during this rehearsal process, and that is part of what makes doing this show so exciting. Parade would not be as effective as it is if it did not tackle its sensitive material as fearlessly as it does. [Director] Myrona DeLaney, [co-star] Kelsey Jenison and I have spoken about trying to create an open dialogue with the cast, crew and production team, and I think that in doing so we can do justice to the material without shying away from it. There may be moments of tension and people may say the wrong thing, but it will all be in service of the show, and that is what will make it a success.
DGB: What has been the biggest surprise for you, as you become more familiar with Parade and its backstory?
JBS: I am surprised at the anger still attached to this case. The internet tends to be full of unbridled rage regardless of the topic at hand, but it struck me as odd that this case, which could be seen from a huge variety of perspectives, is generally a two-sided battle. As I said before, there is always gray area when discussing a case like this one, but most people either see Leo as a guiltless man who fell victim to bigotry, or as a deceitful monster. While researching the case I came across articles online detailing the evidence pointing towards one conclusion or the other, and many of the people commenting were unnecessarily vicious in their defense or their vilification of Leo Frank. Had this case not been so essential in, for instance, the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, then I do not think the reactions would be so strong, but as it stands Leo Frank's innocence or guilt seems to be a placeholder for the existence of antisemitism in the old south.
DGB: Do you feel that social consciousness has evolved since the time of this story’s telling?
JBS: Society is constantly evolving, and social consciousness evolves along with it, so yes, our propensity for inclusion and understanding has certainly grown since 1913. However, that does not mean we have reached some sort of social utopia. The Internet has given us incredible access to information, and has provided those whose voices were once silenced with a platform to speak and be heard. Unfortunately, this also means that people who perpetuate social biases share that same platform. Everyone's opinion is shared, but we can pick and choose who we listen to. This has allowed some people to broaden their perspectives and learn what the "other side" is thinking, but many others, myself included, often choose to listen only to those whose opinions agree with our own. In short, we are certainly doing better than we were in 1913, but we have a long way to go, and I'm not sure that progress stops anywhere.
DGB: What do you hope people will take away with them from seeing Parade?
JBS: I hope that people will see a bit of themselves, whether that means identifying with Leo or Lucille or Jim Conley, or anyone else. I think that regardless of who the audience connects with, there will be something to learn about how far we are willing to go to survive and to protect what we hold dear. I hope that an audience will be able to see a multitude of "sides" to this story, as every character's perspective is a legitimate one, and in fact I think it would be a shame if Leo is seen as the sole protagonist. Our show will be a gray area to parse through, and that, I think, is more rewarding than the alternative.
DGB: Is there anything else you would like us to know?
JBS: This show has the potential to be stunning, heart-breaking, joyous, difficult, beautiful, thought-provoking and impactful, and I hope that anyone coming to see it will open themselves to its inherent messiness. Theatre can be hard to watch, and this show at times will be no exception, but I think that is what makes it so alive. Honestly, the music alone is worth the price of admission! So tell all your friends, get a big group together, and maybe you'll have some interesting conversations on the way home.