Posted February 7, 2007
From the Archives
ALL PERFORMANCES HAVE BEEN CANCELLED!
Actors' Equity Association Responds to Discrimination at the National Theatre, Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, December 2, 1952, in New York City, the National Labor Council of The National Conference of Christians and Jews held their "First [Brotherhood] Award Dinner." George Meany, President of the American Federation of Labor addressed the gathering: "We meet here tonight to honor and proclaim the distinguished service of a trade union in the cause of brotherhood." In 1947, Actors' Equity Association voted to boycott the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Amid protests, the theatre "persisted in a policy of outright exclusion of Negroes."
Equity, he went on, "decided that something ought to be done, that something could be done, to correct such a disgraceful situation. It announced that members of the union would refuse to appear in plays at the National Theatre until exclusion ended." The boycott took effect in 1948. Meany continued, "This was not a strike or a boycott for selfish gain. It was a courageous and self-sacrificing protest on the part of free men and women against a vicious form of un-Americanism, a crusade for a high moral principle."
As they sat on the dais listening to these words, one would like to imagine AEA President Ralph Bellamy and past President Clarence Derwent looking back on the stream of events that led to this most auspicious evening.
It was 1920, the first time the word "Negro" is mentioned in the Equity minutes, as they discussed "the questions of Negroes being admitted" to the Association. By October of 1925, when an actor wrote to Council objecting to Equity insisting that a member of his White Cargo Company join the union "on the grounds that the person was a Negro and his personal servant," Council reacted:
It was moved and seconded that President John Emerson write back to the effect that according to the Constitution, the servant in questions should be a member of the AEA as it [Equity] did not draw any color line or make any racial distinction.
On June 29, 1943, being informed about the race riots in Detroit, Michigan, Council once again put pen to paper:
We, the Council of Actors' Equity Association, members of a profession that does not recognize and has never recognized racial barriers, hereby place ourselves on record as deploring the recent race riots against Negroes in the city of Detroit;
We condemn now and at all times any expression of discrimination against a race of people whose labor, suffering, and genius have made so great a contribution to our American life, and whose members are now working, fighting, and dying to preserve that way of life despite its many injustices towards them; and we feel confident that our President [Franklin Roosevelt] will instigate a thorough investigation as to the sources and possible Nazi origin of the Detroit race riots, to that end and that we may allay the danger of internal disorders in our country, and cement strong national unity for the relentless prosecution of this war to an unconditional victory.
We therefore urge all our fellow labor unions to adopt this same principle.
And so it would come to pass that at the Council meeting of October 1, 1946, the chair of the "Jim Crow" Committee would include in the Committee's recommendations the request "To declare specifically that it [Council] will do what it can to prevent our actors from participating in such discrimination in our National Capital and specifically in the NATIONAL THEATRE." By December of 1946, Council had asked the Executive to seek cooperation from The League of New York Theatres, the Dramatists' Guild, and the Association of Theatrical Agents and Managers.
On April 22, 1947, Councilor Cornelia Otis Skinner, Chairman of the COMMITTEE TO MEET WITH THE DRAMATISTS' GUILD regarding Negro discrimination, ended her report with the recommendation that:
WE STATE NOW TO THE NATIONAL THEATRE AND TO A PUBLIC WHO IS LOOKING TO US TO DO WHAT IS JUST AND HUMANITARIAN, THAT UNLESS THE SITUATION AT THE NATIONAL THEATRE IS REMIDIED WITHIN TWELVE MONTHS FROM JUNE 1, 1947, WE WILL BE FORCED TO FORBID OUR MEMBERS TO PLAY THERE. BY ISSUING SUCH A STATEMENT WE WILL BE KEEPING FAITH WITH OUR NEGRO MEMBERS, WITH OUR CONSCIENCES, AND WITH THE IDEALS OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. [Capitalization is in the minutes.]
Ultimately, finding no other way to accomplish the goal of ending this discrimination, all of the aforementioned organizations would join hands with Equity and support the union's stand. On July 31, 1948, the touring company of Oklahoma took their final bows, singing "Auld Lang Syne" to an all white audience as the National Theatre closed its doors on legitimate theatre in Washington, D.C. In the end, the management decided to show movies rather than integrate.
Over the next three plus years Equity would form committees to fight for equal treatment on the road in the areas of housing, travel, and dining for their members of color. In August of 1951, Ben Irving, the Executive of the Chorus Equity Association urged the adoption of a new Statement of Policy encouraging "greater representation of the Negro People by matching their roles in every day life in legitimate plays and musicals, thereby providing additional opportunity" for these members. Committees would be formed both at Equity and with other professionals to "Encourage the Integration of the Negro Performer in the Legitimate Theatre."
On November 27, 1951, Council received the news that "A letter from Aldrich & Meyers acknowledged Equity's congratulations on their having leased this [the National] theatre to reopen it to legitimate attractions on a non-segregation policy." In February of 1952, the road company of The Rose Tattoo played Ford's Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland in front of a fully integrated audience. Finally, on May 4, 1952, in front of a racially mixed audience that included a delegation of Equity Councilors and staff, Ethel Merman took the stage of the National Theatre in Call Me Madam. Seven months later the National Labor Council of The National Conference of Christians and Jews honored Equity for a battle well fought, and a victory most sweet.
It would be wonderful to report that this was the final battle, but even today, Actors' Equity Association still strives to even the playing field for actors of color as well as the disabled, the older actor, and women. The Non-Traditional Casting Project was born in 1986 to aid in the ongoing struggle against racism and exclusion in theatre, film and television. Equity always felt that this nation's capital would be the place to set an example for the rest of the country. It took time, but they were correct in their assumption. For example, although the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia had been a segregated house, times would change. In the 1970s, when the city of Atlanta raised its voice in protest over the possible destruction of this historic theatre, the white population, which had always gotten in the front door, marched beside the black population that used to climb the outside steps to the gallery.
And what of the National Theatre? It is still a touring house now managed by the Shubert Corporation. If you go to the theatre's website seeking to find out more about this event, you will only learn that "The first attraction in 1952 when the National returned to stage performances after a short period as a movie house" was that production of Call Me Madam. They may chose to give short shrift to this most extraordinary time, but it is a time and an event that we members of Equity are proud to remember as we celebrate Black History Month.
Respectfully submitted by