Open Letter from The Roma People's Project at Columbia University to Actors’ Equity Association

It has come to our attention that the Actors’ Equity Association has recently decided to retire the name “Gypsy Robe,” from a ritual dear to them, a tradition that is over 60 years old. From today forward this ceremony that happens before the opening night of a Broadway musical will be called, “Legacy Robe.” The Roma People's Project at Columbia University welcomes the change of name initiated by the Actors’ Equity Association.

The Roma people have been called “gypsies,” a term derived from “Egyptian” because it was once believed the Roma originated in Egypt. Over time, “gypsy” has developed many meanings, such as “gypsy lifestyle” (transient and carefree), “gypsy cab” (illegal), and “theater gypsies” (wanderers, artists on the move), to the point where many people, especially in the United States, believe “gypsy” only refers to a lifestyle. They associate the word “gypsy” with fantasy, freedom, and nomadism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Roma people could actually benefit from such freedoms?

The truth is that there is a great disconnect between the “gypsy” fantasy and Roma realities. Sadly, too often the word “gypsy” has been used as an instrument to bully, harm and dehumanize the Roma people, erasing their history and plight. We are aware that some who use the term do not intend to use it in a derogatory manner, but to many Roma people, “gypsy” is derogatory and they see it as an insult. Few know that Roma people have endured a period of five-hundred years of slavery, were victims of the Holocaust, and even in today’s world are frequently targets of hate crimes, discrimination and scapegoating. As recently as this summer the Italian Interior Minister echoed Nazi discourse, calling for Roma deportation.

Given the actual Roma history and its entanglement with the “gypsy” misnomer, we at the Roma People's Project believe that the change of name from “Gypsy Robe” to “Legacy Robe” initiated by the Actors’ Equity Association is remarkable. It is a step towards accurate representation of Roma people in mainstream society. We are moved by their honorable choice, especially since it came from an internal re-assessment of the difference between intent and impact. We hope that this responsible decision sets up a positive example for other people and institutions that use “gypsy” similarly. Furthermore, this can spark a dialogue about cultural representation and challenging stereotypes.

The heart of acting is finding empathy through resonating with others’ experiences. We recognize the decision to change the name of a beloved tradition as an expression of empathy. Art is best when it is not disconnected from the larger world but in dialogue with it. We are delighted that the ceremony with its new name, Legacy Robe, will continue to be performed before musicals, which enchant and bring joy to people’s lives.

Changing a ritual so close to an institution’s identity can be challenging. We hope that members who feel attached to the word “gypsy” can learn more about the Roma cultures and identities and become allies to the Roma peoples in their struggle for equality and recognition.

We consider Actors’ Equity Association a friend of the Roma People's Project at Columbia University and we are glad to support it through this transition in any way that is helpful.

Cristiana Grigore
Founder of the Roma People's Project at Columbia University