Did I really do that?
It is ancient history now, but I had never walked out of a theatre performance before.
Yesterday I was in search of online reviews of the 2007 production of the musical Parade by SpeakEasy Stage here in Boston. It had been a popular show with which the local company was closing its 2006-2007 season. Broadway success and Tony nominations a few years earlier had probably made it easy for most local reviewers to see this production as good news for the company and good news for the Boston theatre scene. But I had walked out.
When intermission came that May evening in 2007, I turned to my partner and told him I would meet him and our friends at the end of the evening’s performance. I may have said something like “I just can’t take any more of this.” I had sat long enough looking down our row of seats with everyone laughing and applauding at the end of each musical number. No one seemed the least disturbed by the Southern stereotypes being perpetuated on stage, actors and actresses whose exaggerated drawls seemed enlisted to communicate their characters’ ignorance and at times their ethical slyness.
Parade is an unusual musical about a lynching in 1913 Georgia. Leo Frank, a Jewish man from the North who married a Southern Jewish woman and settled in Atlanta, has been falsely accused of the strangling of one of his former employees. With a basis in history, the story ends with a Southern mob descending on the jail where Frank is serving out a life sentence: they take him out and hang him.
Yesterday I discovered that not everything written about the performance in 2007 communicated unqualified delight. What I read reminded me of factors with which I was struggling in silence while I sat through the first half of the play. In her review in BroadwayWorld.com, Jan Nargi described the play as “inflammatory and unapologetically stereotypical.” According to former Boston Globe-reviewer Thomas Garvey, “Parade wants to think of itself as daring, but no Broadway show would venture into the moral territory that a truly probing examination of the Frank case would require. Thus there's a void at the heart of the musical…”
I continue to reflect on what motivated the action I took that night. It was the first walking out I had ever done. It was the first time I had claimed the right with this group of friends to do something else that I alone preferred to do – or not to do something I clearly had no taste for.
Who was I that night? I think over events in my life the three years before that evening in 2007. I was a man who three times in a single year had traveled home to a Southern city to bury people who used to sit around the holiday table with him. I was a man who a year later watched hours of television coverage as his Southern hometown underwent the unprecedented destruction of Katrina.
And on the stage that evening in 2007 were Southern parents and children, Southern friends, Southern family. On the stage was a Southern city. On the stage was Southern death. But none of the usual sympathy in the face of death was what the play intended to evoke or make room for.
Later that night I stood before a group of friends who had followed my partner and me to our home. At one point I attempted to explain to everyone why I had done what I did earlier. No one in the room that night seemed to know what to say to me.
I expect that these people who knew me found it hard to understand my doing anything like what I had done. Not only had I walked out but I had not asked anyone’s permission before I walked out of the theatre for the length of the second half of the show.
I broke some rules that night, I guess?