NEW YORK, AUG. 16 -- Yielding to overwhelming pressure from its membership, the governing council of Actors Equity reversed itself tonight and decided to permit the English actor Jonathan Pryce to re-create his portrayal of a Eurasian pimp in a Broadway production of the London hit musical "Miss Saigon."
The union refused to disclose the actual vote of the 54 council members present, but the decision, coming after six hours of intense debate, should bring to an end one of the most anguished chapters in its recent history. The Equity council has faced profound and mounting criticism since Aug. 7, when it rejected Pryce, an acknowledged star, saying it could not "appear to condone the casting of a Caucasian in the role of a Eurasian."
"The council determined that, indeed, Mr. Pryce qualifies as a star," and is thus eligible for automatic approval to perform in the play, according to a statement released tonight by Alan Eisenberg, Equity's executive secretary. "It also concluded that the Union had applied an honest and moral principle in an inappropriate manner."
More than 600 members of the actors' union signed a petition denouncing the decision over the past two weeks and many, including Charlton Heston, who quit in protest, called the action racist and a display of censorship. The show's producer, Cameron Mackintosh, canceled the Broadway production -- which had sold a record $25 million worth of advance tickets -- as soon as he heard that Pryce would be denied permission to perform.
"I am delighted by today's decision of Actors Equity to reverse its 'condemnation' of the casting of Jonathan Pryce in 'Miss Saigon,' " Mackintosh said last night in a statement released through a spokesman. "Over the next few days I will confer with members of the creative team and with Jonathan Pryce to determine if the play can be reinstated for Broadway."
Although millions of dollars and many jobs -- including 34 for minorities in the Broadway production -- were at stake, money was never the issue that caused a furor from the public and members of the union. The issues of racism in the theater, censorship at a time when artistic freedoms are being questioned, and individual artistic liberty underscored the often searing debate over Pryce's participation in the show.
Equity's original intent in barring Pryce from performing on Broadway in the role that has won him a chorus of acclaim and the Olivier Award, London's most coveted theater prize, was to create equal casting opportunities for its minority members.
The show, about an American soldier and his girlfriend, is a remake of "Madame Butterfly," relocated to Saigon in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Pryce plays the role of the Engineer, a sleazy Eurasian brothel operator living on corruption, who conjures memories of Joel Grey in "Cabaret."
Minority actors in the United States have long argued that they have been denied the vast majority of adventurous and demanding roles that can make a star or a career. Equity officials have agreed, and have attempted in other productions to enforce the principle of "nontraditional casting," which the union defines as the use of ethnic actors in roles where race or gender is not germane to the character.
Eisenberg said last night that evidence of the casting problems for minorities has been compelling. From April 1989 to May of this year, he said, 33 of the nearly 100 shows produced, representing 504 roles, had no ethnic minority actors.
"For years minority actors were denied access to roles that were not expressly written for the ethnic performer," said Eisenberg. "As a result ethnic actors were largely excluded from working in the theater."
But critics within Equity said that barring Pryce was not the way to improve minority representation on Broadway. The union has veto power over foreign actors but as a "star" Pryce has a right to perform. He has come to Broadway twice in the past, winning a Tony in 1977 for his performance in "Comedians," and starring in Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" in 1984.
Theater critics have called his current role, as the lugubrious pimp who represents the excitement and decay of Saigon in 1975, the performance of his career and one of the finest stage achievements in years.
"Equity has lost a lot of credibility in the minds of the public," said David Rosenak, executive director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. "I'm very supportive and sympathetic to the needs of minority hiring in the theater. In this case, though, Equity was wrong."