Actors Equity has decided to reconsider its ruling barring British actor Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian, from re-creating his award-winning portrayal of a Eurasian brothel owner in the Broadway version of "Miss Saigon."
Equity's action comes in the wake of growing protest from its members as well as a decision by producer Cameron MacKintosh to cancel the show, despite its $25 million advance ticket sale, rather than give in to pressure to cast an Asian in the role.
By early Thursday, after receiving petitions from 300 Equity members -- with more still coming in -- the union announced that it had scheduled a special council meeting for Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Equity offices in New York. "The phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from actors and the general public," spokeswoman Helene Feldman said yesterday.
At issue is the casting of Pryce as the Engineer, a half-French, half-Vietnamese pimp. On Tuesday evening the union's 79-member council voted to deny the actor -- who created the role in London -- permission to perform in the U.S. production. The decision prevented Pryce from obtaining an H-1 visa, under which someone with "exceptional or distinguished merit and ability" -- usually translated into Broadway terms as a star -- can work in the United States temporarily.
Although the cancellation of the show would result in 34 Asians in smaller parts losing their jobs, Equity's decision to bar Pryce was based on its desire to protect minority actors.
The group's action drew immediate fire from the theatrical community. "It's such a ridiculous stance for an actors' union to take in this time of nontraditional casting," said Robert DuSold, who is currently playing Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables" at the National Theatre, and who wrote a letter of protest to Equity this week. "I'm 30 playing someone who's 60. And when I walk out of the theater every night, no one knows who I am because of my craft. Is acting going to be reduced to only playing who you are? That's not what it's about.
"I don't understand what good could come out of a decision like that," he continued. "It's not a good stance, particularly in the current atmosphere of the National Endowment for Arts censorship controversy. Here Equity is turning around and doing exactly the same thing -- not allowing artistic freedom. The only way to salvage the show is for Equity to reconsider its decision."
Some of the petitions received by Equity were initiated by Craig Dorfman, the co-owner of the New York Agency, which represents actors. Dorfman said yesterday that when he and his partner, Bill Timms, a former Equity employee, heard about the ruling, they remembered that if the union received petitions from 100 Equity members in good standing, it would be required to convene a council meeting to reconsider. Dorfman and Timms rushed petitions together requesting the meeting and posted them in six Broadway theaters, including three staging MacKintosh productions.
"It's reverse discrimination," said Dorfman yesterday. "Equity can't deny actors jobs on the basis of race."
In an interview on Fox television, actor Barnard Hughes, who signed one of the petitions and who is appearing on Broadway in "Prelude to a Kiss," said, "Minorities are woefully underemployed on Broadway. But I think the producers of 'Miss Saigon' have a point. Jonathan Pryce is an established, recognized star. He has contributed to the success of 'Miss Saigon' for a couple of years in London, contributed so much that the producers feel they would like him to do it here in New York. I have a resistance somehow to unions meddling in artistic decisions."
In a related development yesterday, syndicated columnist Liz Smith reported that Equity's president, actress Colleen Dewhurst, portrayed an Asian in a 1970 Lincoln Center production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan." Neither Dewhurst, nor Alan Eisenberg, the union's executive secretary, was available for comment on the union's actions.
Equity's decision to reexamine its ruling is looked upon by many in the theater community as giving in to the inevitable.
"I think it's all over," said Broadway press agent David Powers. "I don't think they planned this, but all along knew it would be settled. And now the show will come in with the biggest advance in history. Of course it will open as scheduled, and of course Pryce will be in it. They have a $25 million advance. Now they'll come in with 50 million."
"I think they've been playing into reconsidering it from the beginning," said Shakespeare Festival Producer Joseph Papp, who was one of the first to hire nonwhite actors in traditionally white roles. "It's too costly a show not to go on. But Equity has handled it so poorly that they are going to have to back away now to make it happen. No union should be involved in casting.
"But what keeps getting lost in all this is that there is a real issue of racism in this country. There's nothing wrong with that issue. Only Equity should not be involved in it."