Once headed for a career in opera, Kevin McAllister is giving three breakout performances
in the musical Parade at Ford’s Theatre
If the 1913 criminal trial of Leo Frank – and the lynching that followed two years later – seems to you like uncomfortable fodder for a Tony Award-winning musical, actor Kevin McAllister can relate. “The show is very different from anything else in musical theatre,” he said in an interview last week. “Although the writers take some theatrical liberties, it’s almost entirely factual.”
Currently playing at Ford’s Theatre, Parade brings some perennial American questions about anti-Semitism and the miscarriage of justice to center stage. Frank (Euan Morton) is a successful Jewish business man living in Georgia, and is targeted as the murderer of Mary Phagan (Lauren Williams), a thirteen-year-old factory employee. In this production – with a substantially pared-down cast compared to many productions of years past – every actor plays multiple roles. McAllister, for his part, met a unique challenge: the need to round out all three of the three major African-American male characters.
“In terms of the acting and the singing, I think it’s a colossal job,” McAllister said. “The characters are all very different in age and in vocal range. I find myself taking vitamins every night just to make sure I keep my voice up.”
“I’ve never done anything in the DC area in a lead role like this,” he added. “It’s a breakthrough, career-wise.”
McAllister majored in music while in school, and planned for several years on getting into the world of opera. His entry into musical theatre came when his friend Phillip Collister, the Director of Music at Roland Park Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, introduced him to Toby Orenstein, the founder of Toby’s Dinner Theatre. “Toby called me and asked me if I had ever done musical theatre,” he recalled. “I was able to audition, and started working with her daily for weeks. It was Acting 101. That’s when I fell in love with musical theatre.”
Last year, McAllister participated in a reading of Parade as part of a donor event at Ford’s, to gauge whether the theatre had interest in doing the show. When Parade made it into the season’s programming, he was invited back to perform.
“We were given a book to read on the actual trial, which was very dense,” McAllister said. So we came into the rehearsal process knowing a lot about the people we were playing.” (Theatregoers are encouraged to pick up Steve Oney’s 2003 non-fiction book “And The Dead Shall Rise” for further reference).
Themes of race, prejudice, and injustice sit large at the forefront of Parade. Leo Frank’s conviction and murder stemmed not from clear evidence, but from his status as an outsider. His financial success, perhaps, bred resentment, or his Northern origins struck a bad chord with the Southern jury. But his status as a Jew, it seems, sealed his fate in the eyes of the intolerant.
For McAllister’s characters, prejudice is a complicated topic. Newt Lee is a meek night watchman, past his prime. Jim Conley hungers to wrestle power from those in charge once given the chance. Riley is a sharp-minded, circumspect servant who tries to look at the bigger picture.
Working closely with director Stephen Rayne, McAllister remembers the struggle to bring the three black male characters to life, beginning with soft-spoken Newt. “He starts as someone who’s trying to help with the investigation, but he ends up being a suspect,” he explained. “Now, this guy is in his fifties in 1913. Which means that when he was a kid, slavery was just ending. So, men in that older age range were different. I think he has certain mentalities that maybe the younger people in the story don’t have. So I try to play him with a little more humility. And for someone who already has an innate fear of the white race, getting pulled into the trial takes his fear to a different kind of level.”
McAllister noted that one of the keys to unlocking Newt lay in his spirituality. “He has a deep religious conscience. Like when he’s being interrogated by the police, instead of a real answer he responds with a Bible verse. Those little things helped me with the character development.”
The role of factory cleaner Jim Conley, on the other hand, demands a different actorly touch. Newt is cowed by the whirlwind of conflict around him. “But Conley is the complete opposite,” said McAllister. “He’s much younger, in his mid-twenties, with a whole different outlook on the world. He’s really used to getting over by any means necessary. And when you get to the trial, you see that he’s willing to play the game – to lie, to exaggerate, to manipulate the system.”
When the audience meets Conley later on, in Act Two, they also need to see that he has a much darker side. “Stephen didn’t want to play it safe with this,” said McAllister. “He and I rehearsed that scene until it was something we knew would really make people uncomfortable. I’ve had so many people come up to me after the show and say, ‘I thought that I liked you in the first act, but by the end of the second act I didn’t!’’
Conley, McAllister added, may hold the key to the crime. “If you read the books and research these people, you do get the feeling that more likely than not it was Conley who killed Mary Phagan,” he said. It’s not totally clear, but we wanted to give people the option of understanding the story that way.”
The third character, Riley, appears in Act Two as a servant to Governor Slaton. “Riley is the one who really works within the system,” said McAllister. “He’s not exactly happy about his place, but he owns it. He clearly understands that he might be better off living in the North. But, he’s not in the North. He’s in the South. So his philosophy is: when there are white people around, let’s just stick to our roles and not cause trouble.”
McAllister had several long conversations with Stephen Rayne about the song “Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” which Riley sings with Slaton’s servant Angela (played by Kellee Knighten Hough). “As soon as the song ends, we go right back to the roles we play in society,” he said. “I wasn’t sure about it – what it was worth. But once we talked it through, it became clear that Riley’s was a point of view that wasn’t being discussed in the play yet.”
“And I hope,” he added, “that with these three characters, you start to get a clear understanding of the black men in this story from all points of view.”
From McAllister’s perspective, delving into such a dark legacy has been fascinating, demanding work for the cast. “We’re really submerging ourselves in the spirit of this play,” he said. “Like with any play, we do have to put a certain amount of our minds into the mind of these Southern towns back then.”
“I will say that it can be tiring,” he said. “But I’m having a blast.”