BY CARY GINELL
His day job is as associate justice of the Second District, Division Six of the California Courts of Appeal, but Steve Perren’s passion for the stage has seen him appear in a variety of shows in Ventura County over the years. He played founding father Roger Sherman in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s 2012 production of 1776 and has also appeared in numerous operettas staged by the Ventura County Gilbert and Sullivan Repertoire Company. In Panic! Productions’ Parade, currently playing at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts, Perren is ideally suited for the part of Judge Leonard S. Roan, who presides over the trial of accused child murderer Leo Frank. Parade deals with the real-life arrest and trial of Frank (played by Joshua Finkel), a Georgia factory superintendent who was accused of murdering 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan in 1913. We sat down with Steve during a break in rehearsals for the show, and talked about his unique perspective as an actor who also shares the occupation of the character he portrays.
VCOS: A few weeks ago, we talked to Joshua Finkel about how his Jewish heritage made him uniquely suited to portray Leo Frank. Was your character’s avocation a key to convincing you to join this cast?
STEVE: Yes it was. The story is an important part of American legal history because it is a real case; it really went to the Georgia Supreme Court and it really went to the United States Supreme Court. Curiously, on issues that are somewhat prosaic, some very technical, evidentiary issues were in this case, concerning how Leo Frank was tried, not so much for Mary Phagan’s murder, which, of course, was the issue, but all the other things that he didn’t do that they claimed he did, which painted him as an evil person, when measured against the horror of the crime itself; and it just pushed it over the edge.
VCOS: Was this a case of character assassination, then?
STEVE: It was. And by design.
VCOS: Because they couldn’t convict Frank on the evidence?
STEVE: Well, they fabricated the evidence, that appears to be pretty clear, to the extent that the key witness was locked up, basically, by the prosecutor, Dorsey, and “taught” his role. He was an escaped felon and that was used as leverage against him. The trial in the show differs from the trial in fact because Leo had a “dream team” of seven of the finest lawyers in the country defending him, but they were just fighting the tide, which is a metaphor that runs through some of the songs that I sing. But this was a trial that was driven by an ambitious prosecutor who ultimately became governor as a result of it, and Frank was convicted through the use of not only false evidence but an appeal to racial hatred, ethnicity, and all the things that our system is designed to avoid. The reality is that this is something we have to be ever vigilant about.
VCOS: What is your personal opinion of your character, Judge Roan?
STEVE: In the play, he is somewhat of a manipulative fellow. In the second act, he is the catalyst for bringing Dorsey into the governorship because he does not want to be embarrassed by the current governor, John Slaton, who had a sudden attack of conscience and not only thought about but actually did commute Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, with a long term objective of pardoning Leo outright because the evidence was clearly inadequate, based upon his own investigation. So to the extent that a judge would be held up as a target because the trial “went South,” so to speak, he wanted to prevent that, and so he seduces Dorsey, a very popular prosecutor, to run for the governorship by offering him a subliminal suggestion. It becomes very topical in the song that he sings. There’s a point in which he sings about how Slaton is walking into a nest of hornets. So he sings, “When you step into a nest of hornets, someone’s going to get stung. Better to let nature take its course, and when you climb to the top of the ladder, hang it on the top rung, and you won’t ever feel the river’s force,” meaning if you are removed from society, as presumably Slaton was, you don’t have to know what was going on. “But the people down below,” and this is the part that is almost too much, “sense the turning of the tide. They want someone in command who’s uniquely qualified to defend them, protect them, restore their respect and their pride.” This was written by a young man in 1995 who, I guess, foresaw the future, but it’s very timely in that sense.
VCOS: Was this trial corrupt and suspect from top to bottom?
STEVE: I really can’t comment on that because I don’t know. What I’ve read about the judge, independent of what’s in the play, is that he was a well-regarded judge, and in fact, sufficiently so that after he saw all of the evidence unfold and a verdict came in, he wrote to Slaton to ask that Leo’s penalty be reconsidered or commuted. I don’t know the details of that but it appears that he did write a letter to the governor seeking some sort of clemency.
VCOS: Can you comment on the play from the point of view of someone who is professionally involved in the legal system?
STEVE: The issues are raised in many trials in which judges are confronted with how much evidence can you allow that doesn’t pertain directly to the events that happened, but may suggest that they fill in some of the spaces, character evidence being the case in point. When I went to law school, you never were supposed to deal with character evidence. You just didn’t do it. Well, that’s very different now. Judges have to be very sensitive as to how far you can allow what appears to be somewhat peripheral evidence to come in about the nature of other behaviors the defendant may have engaged in which are similar to or are the same as those that are being charged. This would suggest that if you behaved in a certain way on a certain occasion, it’s reasonable to believe that you would behave that way on another occasion. Well, the danger of that is immediate and evident. One of our finest jurists said that they problem with that kind of evidence is that it is usually irrelevant, and that jurist, whose name was Otto Kaus, said it was not that it’s relevant, but that it was TOO relevant, and carries more power than it really should. That’s what this trial was built on, and in fact, that’s why it went to the Supreme Court, which found that the judge erred in admitting this evidence. This kind of thing is not something that should come to the Supreme Court; it’s pretty much a state issue. I do know that Oliver Wendell Holmes did dissent in the case and said that it was not a fair trial.
VCOS: As a student of judicial history, was this trial an anomaly for that time and in that particular geographical region?
STEVE: No, it was not an anomaly. The British system abhorred that kind of evidence. But modernity has reinvigorated that concept.
VCOS: In addition to your familiarity with the judicial aspects of your character, do you have any experience regarding the anti-Semitism that played a big part in sealing Leo Frank’s fate?
STEVE: Yes I do. My family was from southern West Virginia. My mom, may she rest in peace, was born in 1917. In the mid-twenties, not terribly long after this play takes play, my family had an event in their lives which echoes much of this. If you look at a map of West Virginia, there’s a bowl at the bottom of the map, and right where the water would all gather, if you would, that’s where Bluefield, West Virginia is. It’s about the southernmost city in the state. Princeton, the town my family was from, is about ten miles north of that. So my family would go to synagogue in Bluefield, which was the nearest place where one was located. There weren’t a great number of Jews in the area back then. In Princeton, I think there were four Jewish families, all of whom were related to one another, which explains why they all left because they couldn’t marry each other. One time, my grandfather was driving back from synagogue, coming down what was known as the Princeton-Bluefield Road. It was just an old mountain road and he was coming back with my grandmother, my mom, and her two brothers, who were, at that time, about seven, ten, and twelve years old. That part of West Virginia is a series of hollows, little valleys, and you go from one to the other. Well, as they wound their way through these hollows, they saw a glow in the distance, and my grandfather immediately knew what that meant. As they rounded the corner, sure enough, there was a cross burning in the field with a bunch of white-clad Klansmen there. Well, they stopped his car. As he was slowing down, my grandfather told the kids – my mom and her two brothers – to get on the floor, which they did. They didn’t see what was happening but they overheard a voice saying, “Whaddya ya doin’ heah?” or words to that effect. My grandfather spoke with a very heavy Russian accent and explained that they were just driving home. It was starting to get tense when a voice from behind this interrogator said, “You can stop that, that’s Barbakow, he’s a good Jew.” The voice belonged to the sheriff. Barbakow was our family name. My grandfather’s name was Harry Barbakow. And so they were allowed to go on home. There were other events like that but thankfully there were no cross-burnings that I know of on the front lawn of their home. I was at that house when I was a kid and I remember in the ’50s – it was 1957 as a matter of fact – I went there with my cousin, who was very close to me – and I remember going to a diner that was right off the same road that I was talking about – and right on the door it said “white only.” I didn’t understand that. I was fifteen at the time and I thought, “What does that mean?” One time, we went to a movie theater, the Mercer in downtown Princeton, which was the county seat for Mercer County. I wanted to go sit up in the balcony but the lady usher stopped me and said, “Uh-uh. You can’t go in the balcony.” And then I noticed that only black people were in the balcony and all the white people were down on the main floor.
VCOS: So here we are in 2016 and we think that we are all enlightened and this was all in the past, a century ago, yet Parade is just as relevant as it ever was, isn’t it?
STEVE: Yes, but I wouldn’t say that it is more relevant. It IS relevant. Anything that is this profoundly impactful on the judicial system lets you know that the system really can fail. But we have rules now in jury selection and other aspects of trials where if you can discern that there is a racial theme being played, particularly in jury selection, it reflects what is known as a “protected class.” It could be women, it could be gays, it could be ethnic groups or races, and when that happens, you can end a trial right there and start it all over. That applies to civil as well as criminal cases. We are highly sensitive to appeals to prejudice, appeals to bias, loading juries, and playing the race card, as it is sometimes called.
VCOS: So is Parade about the modernization of the judicial system? Due to this year’s presidential campaign, we realize that the same racist conditions that occurred in 1915 still exist today in many parts of the country.
STEVE: Is there bias and hatred in a community? Well, that’s been true throughout history. But in California and most of the United States, laws have been made to prevent that and I think that things are far better now. As an example, I went to UCLA and when I graduated, we had 310 graduates in my class, including three women, one African American, and one Asian. The rest were white guys. Well, I go down there every year to speak to the incoming class, and now, it’s the face of America. It’s as diverse as it can be. So I think that that is silent or evident testament to the fact that we have come a long way, which is not to say that we shouldn’t be sensitive to where we are now or say that we’ve gotten to a point where we can say that we’re OK, but we are making progress. It’s painful, it’s tedious, it’s sometimes hurtful, and today, it has become political at the national level. Is it still here? Of course it is. Has it been present throughout humankind’s historical record? Of course it has. But I would like to think that through continuing enlightenment, that there is still hope for the future.
Steve Perren appears in Parade, which plays through September 24 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.