We Shall Overcome: Equity's Historic Fight Against Discrimination
Actors' Equity Association, which represents more than 48,000 stage actors and stage managers, has been a leader in social change since its inception in New York City in 1913. The Union was formed to protect the rights of actors from a variety of abuses (no rehearsal pay; getting stranded when a show closed out of town) and has become the heart and soul of the American Theater. Equity joins its "sister" unions, SAG and AFTRA, in saluting Black History Month.
Although early 20th Century theatre mirrored a segregated society, Equity was one of the first unions to stand up against "Jim Crow." In 1944, Equity created a committee to assist minority actors who were turned away from segregated hotels "on the road." Jose Ferrer, who co-starred with Paul Robeson in OTHELLO on Broadway, was outraged by segregation and announced in Variety he will never again perform in front of a segregated audience. Two years later, the cast of JOAN OF LORRAINE, starring Ingrid Bergman, told Equity that they were disgusted by audience segregation at the legitimate theaters in Washington, DC. In 1947, Actors' Equity made it clear to the theater owners, and to the world at large, it would not tolerate such a policy and drew a line in the sand: "We state now to the National Theatre - and to a public which is looking to us to do what is just and humanitarian - that unless the situation is remedied, we will be forced to forbid our members to play there." The policy was ultimately reversed, becoming a milestone in the early days of the civil rights movement.
Equity continued to monitor segregation and announced in 1952 that its members would not perform in South African theaters while apartheid existed. In 1955, a monograph entitled "A Statement on the Integration of Negro Performers" reaffirmed Equity's commitment to a fully integrated theatre and society. In 1959, Equity sponsored the first "Integration Showcase" at the Majestic Theatre for an audience of casting directors and producers - a selection of famous scenes using what is later to be known as "non-traditional casting."
Equity began to use its power to defeat racism through collective bargaining. In 1961, Equity and the League of American Theaters and Producers agreed that no member of Equity would be required to perform where discrimination was practiced. Equity¹s first Ethnic Minorities Committee was formed to provide insight and guidance on policies geared towards improving employment opportunities for actors of color. In 1964, Fredrick O’ Neal, one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild, became the first African-American President of Actors' Equity. By 1980, all Equity contracts contained clauses encouraging the casting of actors of color, actors with disabilities, women and seniors.
In the ‘70s, Equity added an Equal Employment Opportunity Business Representative to its staff, and undertook the first census of its membership – a task that was repeated in 1992 and 2001 to ascertain our ethnic composition. Today, Equity collects voluntary ethnic data at every Equity audition and the time of joining the Association.
Although times were changing, Equity was still frustrated that job opportunities for actors of color were lacking. In 1980, Equity established a Script Advisory Committee, which reads scripts prior to casting to provide non-traditional casting recommendations to producers and directors. In 1986, Equity sponsored the first Non-Traditional Casting Symposium in New York. The program featured 18 scenes with 53 actors in non-traditional roles, including James Earl Jones as ‘Big Daddy’ in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. The symposium was repeated in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston. This ultimately led to the creation of the Non-Traditional Casting Project, which maintains thousands of active files to facilitate the casting of minorities and actors with disabilities with Equity's active support.
On a number of occasions, Equity has taken either legal or public action to ensure that actors of color are given full consideration in the casting of productions. In 1980, filed an arbitration against the Broadway production, GOODBYE, FIDEL, maintaining that the producers had not given due consideration to Hispanic actors. The Union won, and the producers were required to give assurances that there would be no systematic exclusion of talent. Equity filed a similar arbitration against the Off Broadway production, PRICE OF GENIUS. Equity sent letters of censure to the Asolo Theatre and the Old Globe Theatre for their respective productions of RASHOMON, set in feudal Japan, which failed to employ a single Asian-Pacific American actor. Equity engaged in a public leafleting campaign to inform the public about casting decisions in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN regarding the lack of Hispanic actors. Equity engaged in constructive dialogues with the production teams from THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and LES MISERABLES, and a host of others about improving the representation of actors of color in these productions.
Of course, the most famous controversy remains MISS SAIGON, which ironically helped to galvanize the public’s awareness about the plight of actors of color in the entertainment industry. As a direct consequence of the MISS SAIGON issue, Equity’s Council adopted a policy that acknowledges that all artists want to apply their craft in challenging roles, but that until there is real parity in employment opportunities for actors of color, roles that are texturally racially specific should be cast accordingly.
Today, Equity’s EEO Committee meets on a regular basis to monitor Equity’s policies and recommend changes when necessary. At the Board level, concessions are not granted without Equity’s due consideration of either 1) the producer’s hiring practices in the past, or 2) assurances that improvements will be made in the future. The review of hiring practices for concession requests has led to the hiring of actors of color who were previously excluded from consideration. In addition, hiring statistics are regular reviewed during contract negotiations and at quarterly meetings between Equity and the League of American Theatres and Producers.
In 1995, Equity, along with the League of American Theatres and Producers, The Dramatists Guild, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and the Casting Society of America, adopted a Document of Principle. The document endorses the goals of diversity and condemns all forms of discrimination and exclusion. In 1996, Equity and the League sponsored a major symposium on audience development for people of color to develop strategies for reaching more diverse audiences. In 1997, Equity met with the Dramatists Guild, the SSD&C, CSA and the National Association of Talent Representatives to survey their memberships about perceptions and obstacles to non-traditional casting.
More recently, Equity has sponsored a series of networking events for actors of color, actors with disabilities, seniors and female actors, which facilitate, on an informal basis, the interaction of these actors with casting directors and artistic directors. In addition, Equity also began a production assistant initiative for individuals of color interested in pursuing careers as stage managers, and instituted a dialogue with the American Theatre Critics Association about perceptions and acceptance of non-traditional casting.
Today, as we celebrate Black History Month, Equity continues to embrace the principles of diversity within the theatrical industry, and strongly supports equal employment opportunities for actors of color, actors with disabilities, women and seniors.
Leaders at the 1986 National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting L-R Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg, Shubert Organization's Bernie Jacobs, Casting Director/NTCP Co-Founder Joanna Merlin; Harry Burney, Chair of Equity's Ethnic Minorities Committee; and Harry Newman, Co-Founder, NTCP
Equity's Eastern Regional EEO-Committee Eric Francis Montesa, Joan Valentina, Co-Chair Christine Toy Johnson, EEO Business Rep Scott Watanabe, Judy Rice, Co-Chair Julia Breneatta Simpson, former EEO Rep Willie Boston, Carla Moore, Joanne Borts