Almost from its inception in 1913, Actors' Equity Association was ahead of the nation on the issue of race. Black actors were actors, in the union's view, and black theatregoers were theatregoers. Equity came to life in the Jim Crow era, when theatre and hotels were often segregated or barred blacks altogether, and many producers — eyes on the bottom line — couldn't bring themselves to cast black actors in roles other than butlers, maids and field hands. Equity was lonely in its principles.
In the 1943-44 season, Paul Robeson became the first black man to play the title role in Othello on Broadway, but when Robeson toured with the show, it was clear that there were many battles still to fight. The hotels that admitted his co-stars, José Ferrer and Uta Hagen, would not take him or any African-American. Moreover, the audiences that cheered his portrayal of the tortured Moor were often segregated — the whites in the orchestra, the blacks in the balcony. Even in New York, Robeson was not allowed to dine at Sardi's, the theatrical hangout just steps from where he took his nightly bows at the Shubert Theatre.
In 1944 Equity formed the somewhat euphemistically named Hotel Accommodations Committee, whose main purpose was finding quality, fair lodging for the union's African-American members. Hotels in the South — which, by inclination and history, also included Baltimore, St. Louis, and Washington, DC — were the most rigidly opposed to integration. The West was often no better.
Equity made headlines in January 1947, when it tried to convince the management of DC's National Theater to alter its policy of segregating its audience — the theatre's manager, Marcus Heiman, refused. Like most theatre operators, he didn't care for outsiders telling him how to run his affairs. In 1948 Equity upped the ante. The union said it would withdraw the services of its members if discrimination against black theatre patrons at the National Theater did not end. It intended that the League of New York Theatres acknowledge the new policy when the union's contract came up for negotiation. If not, threatened the union, there would be no basic agreement.
The union's stand made headlines and alarmed producers. The League tried to dissuade Equity. No showman was so bold as to say that Equity was morally wrong. Instead they protested that the theatre had no business dictating morals. And yet, against all odds, the union won the battle, and the new contract featured an anti-discrimination clause.
Equity also fought for integration on the stage and to get African-American actors more, and better, roles. To force the issue, the union featured integrated casts in its own Equity Library Theatre as early as 1945. And it dreamed up a series of Integrated Showcase Demonstrations featuring mixed casts performing scenes from shows that had previously been produced with white actors. The evenings were intended for "a selected audience of agents, casting directors, producers, dramatists, and other theatrical persons."
(Equity is engaged in a yearlong celebration of its birth. In celebration, Playbill will feature a new story every month about AEA and its history in the theatre. This feature appears in the February 2013 issue of Playbill magazine.)
The 100-year history of Actors' Equity Association is celebrated in a new, lavishly illustrated book, "Performance of the Century," by Playbill writer Robert Simonson. To purchase it, visit the Playbill Store.