Guest Essay

An illustration of the actress Micaela Diamond as herself and her character, Lucille Frank. Both versions wear a necklace with the Star of David. At the bottom are silhouettes of protesters.
Credit...Nicole Rifkin

By Micaela Diamond

Ms. Diamond is an actor, currently playing Lucille Frank in the Broadway revival of “Parade.”

Eight times a week, I watch a Jewish man get lynched on Broadway.

“Parade,” in which I play the part of Lucille Frank, is a musical based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who managed a pencil factory in Atlanta. In 1913 he was accused and convicted — despite a lack of crucial physical evidence — of murdering a 13-year-old girl who was found dead in the factory’s basement. He was given a death sentence that was later commuted. But by then, the public was so enraged, he was kidnapped from prison and hanged by a mob. A large part of the musical dramatizes the trial. It is also, surprisingly, a love story.

My character is Leo’s wife, who’s forced to face the unforgiving nature of racial supremacy and the impossibility of escaping her Jewish identity. In the opening scene of “Parade,” Lucille chides Leo for using Yiddish words like “meshuggeneh.” Unlike Leo, she has embraced wealthy Southern society her entire life. The book writer of “Parade,” Alfred Uhry, likes to say that people like Lucille are “Southern first, American second, Jewish later.” To an audience, the only hint of her Jewish roots, at first, may be her curls.

I can relate to Lucille — her Jewishness, her lack of Jewishness, her insistence on assimilation. There are so many parts of my identity that feel more at the forefront than my Jewishness, like being an actor, being queer, being a good cook. Admittedly and annoyingly, I made plenty of “Jew-ish” jokes growing up. I went to Israel on Birthright at 19 mostly because I wanted to make out with my best friend in a foreign country.

Yet our identities are as nuanced as our roots are indelible. Both Lucille and I wear jewelry with the Star of David; for me and perhaps for her, it symbolizes the history and resilience of our people. Along with the other Jewish cast members in our show, I stand in a circle and say the Kaddish before almost every performance. None of us regularly go to synagogue, but it is an expression of community as we tell this hard story.

Working on this show night after night, I’m forced to confront another truth: Antisemites have never cared what kind of Jew you are, whether you attend synagogue or throw around Yiddish words. “Parade” speaks to historical antisemitism and mob violence, and it forces us to see how antisemitism and racism are inextricably linked, underscoring how the pursuit of justice fails in a broken judicial system. There is fear in acknowledging ourselves — Jewish people — as marginalized. But as Lucille learns through the course of the play, assimilating into the mainstream and hoping that will protect you isn’t the answer. If we refuse to embrace our inherent otherness — the parts that make us definitively Jewish Americans — we forget our common struggle with other marginalized people.

The evidence presented against Leo in court revolves mostly around Jewish stereotypes. We hear about Leo’s “fancy talk” and his “sweating from every pore,” and we hear testimonies that he had a pattern of inviting underage girls up to his office. Many of these stereotypes felt outlandish to me, but such conspiracies are at the very core of colloquial antisemitism. The idea of “fancy talk” is a dog whistle referring to the perception that Jews run the world. The pedophile accusations are rooted in what is known as blood libel, a rumor dating back to the Middle Ages that Jews murder Christian children, then use their blood for ritual purposes like baking matzo.

But in the play, it is not only Jews who are maligned and abused. The only other person the police considered making a suspect in the murder was a Black man, the night watchman of the pencil factory. In the show, the prosecutor on the case has been instructed to deliver a quick conviction, and he casually states that hanging a Black man “ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better.” He knows that pinning the crime on a Jewish man will cast the outcome in a different light than pinning it on a Black man: He can knock the Jewish man down a peg, whereas the Black man’s social status has no farther to fall. In the layered storytelling of “Parade,” we can see how antisemitism and racism are integrally connected and how white people in power are incentivized to pit minorities against one another, using racism to provide convenient scapegoats and the illusion of law and order.

Minnie — Minola McKnight, played by the incomparable Danielle Lee Greaves — is the Franks’ Black housekeeper. She’s built a relationship with Lucille over years, becoming her confidante. But Minnie testifies against Leo, offering evidence we later learn was fabricated by the prosecution. It is a damning moment, both because it leads to Leo’s indictment and because it forces the audience to reckon with how the criminal justice system fails to protect all of those without power.

“Parade” was first produced on Broadway in 1998 and Michael Arden, who directed the 2023 production, understands that successfully reviving a musical requires purposeful reinvention. Throughout the process, he has led with beautiful intention around making those who were underrepresented in 1913 (or 2023) a stronger and more active presence. Among my favorite moments in the show is one of the last: Minnie and Lucille, reconciled, center stage, singing softly under a parasol together. A Black woman and a Jewish woman, undone by the same system, having a picnic.

Given the deep pain Black people have suffered at the hands of white supremacy, I spent a lot of time reflecting on why we’re telling Leo Frank’s story from 1913 when a multitude of Black people had been lynched at that time. What about their stories?

But “Parade” is also about the importance of honoring every story and recognizing the ways in which we can take responsibility for one another. It’s a story about dangers inherent to America’s essence: a country built on values of inclusivity and representation that is too often resistant to progress and change. The gruesome reality of white centralized power means history will always have an iron grip on us, holding us in the past. The musical’s opening number features a Confederate soldier singing about the beautiful hills of red clay he is going to war for. The show closes with the same melody in its finale; we see a contemporary white couple crack a Bud Light at a picnic on the same red clay and are reminded that this history is alive.

I am often asked, “How do you do a show so heavy night after night?” There is something about this story of a Jewish woman finding her voice, about a couple out of love returning to each other, that is healing and inspiring. It has given me a newfound responsibility as an actor, as a human and as a Jew telling this story. It has also shown me how the harms this country has inflicted on its own people for centuries intersect, and today, the show allows me to see myself — and hopefully allows us all to see ourselves — in those difficult stories.

There have also been such profound moments of joy. In May, Ben Platt, who plays Leo, and I were invited to perform songs from our show for the White House’s American Jewish Heritage Month celebration in front of the president, the first lady and many prominent Jewish Americans. (I brought a napkin home for my mom as a souvenir.)

Yet during our first preview performance, on the street outside the Jacobs Theater on Broadway, a group of neo-Nazis protested the show, handing out fliers and holding banners. A play that was meant to be a revival of a century-old story suddenly had contemporary implications. It was a haunting reminder of this story’s immediacy.

After Leo Frank was lynched, the real-life Lucille stayed in Georgia until her death. She didn’t run far away, not even to Brooklyn, where he grew up. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe she knew she would find antisemitism there, too. When my mother heard the news about the harassing neo-Nazis, she couldn’t believe it. “In New York! In New York,” she lamented. But antisemitism has always been here, in my Manhattan, in Leo’s Brooklyn and Lucille’s Atlanta.

So eight times a week, I watch a Jewish man lynched on a Broadway stage. And how do I do a show so heavy night after night? With this crucial reminder: We will find the music in all of it. We will find joy in the Franks’ lives and in the stories we share with one another backstage. We will bring the Franks to the White House. We will see ourselves in the heroes and the villains. We will honor Leo Frank and all those who deserved, but never saw, due process.

We will find the music. We will, and we will, and we will.

Micaela Diamond is starring as Lucille Frank in the Broadway revival of “Parade.”

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