From the good-natured sounds of giggling and after-school gossip at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theater, one wouldn’t have guessed that the cast of “Parade” was arriving to rehearse a very serious production: the true story of a 1913 Georgia trial in which Jewish factory manager Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted and hanged for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old employee.
“We have become known for picking intense work,” said Jennifer Boesing, the artistic director of the Youth Musical Theatre Company. “Our mission is about creating professional, exciting theater that allows kids to perform at a really high level, more than doing family entertainment.”
In terms of emotional intensity, “Parade” would be a challenging play for actors of any age. First produced on Broadway in 1998, it’s the musical dramatization of Frank’s story — a series of events cloaked in anti-Semitism, against a backdrop of the racially charged, post-Reconstruction South. The case helped bring about the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.
The YMTC production opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 25, with three other nighttime performances and two matinees scheduled through March 6.
In the early stages of the 10-week rehearsal period, the 34 cast members (mostly high-school students) sat down with directors to have an open discussion about the story and what it meant for them to be performing it.
“I asked a few of the kids to lead the discussion, and we talked about this history — Reconstruction, the context of what was happening in the South,” Boesing said. “These are really savvy kids, and everyone had something to say.”
Luna Lewis, a 14-year-old black cast member who plays the governor’s servant, said she welcomed the chance to talk about different kinds of prejudice.
“I’m excited about doing a show that’s so intense, that has such heavy subject matter,” said Lewis, a freshman at Berkeley High. “It’s been more interesting for me that it’s not just about racism against African Americans. It’s been interesting to try to figure out what my character, as a black woman in Confederate Georgia, would be thinking and feeling about Jewish hate, and about this trial.”
Boesing said YMTC made a special effort to reach out to black students to fill black roles in the production.
“That’s a big part of this story, the anti-black racism in the South during this era, and how that ties into the anti-Semitism,” Boesling said. “It’s been a really powerful experience for the kids, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.”
Marnina Wirtschafter, a 17-year-old senior at Berkeley High, is one of the Jewish kids. She plays Leo Frank’s wife, Lucille, and the role has helped her get in touch with the pain of anti-Semitism.
“This personalizes it for me,” she said. “When I’m totally Lucille, I do feel the other characters’ anti-Semitism toward me … there are points where, as my character, I feel like they’re not just attacking my husband, they’re also attacking all Jews.”
As for some of the show’s more intense imagery — such as the hanging scene — Wirstschafter acknowledged that it’s been an emotional experience.
“It is a painful show, but hopefully what people can get out of it can be positive,” she said. “Because they’ll see this hatred and intolerance that gets in the way of justice and the truth, and maybe they’ll be moved to do what they can in their lives to eliminate that.”
Boesing said she has had no problem with the young cast taking on such mature themes.
“Yes, it’s a grown-up play,” she said. “But from an audience perspective, something I’ve heard many times is ‘If I had seen this with adult [actors], I would have felt preached at.’ There’s something about kids telling this story that is so, so powerful.”
“Parade” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. (Feb. 25, 26, March 4, 5) and 2 p.m. (Feb. 27, March 6) at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Q&A session follows on Feb. 27. Tickets and information: www.ymtcberkeley.org or (510) 595-5514.