Equity at 100: How Actors' Equity Pushed for Racial Equality

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13 Feb 2013

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

Actors' Equity Association is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In Playbill's latest look at the union's history, learn about the union's early push for racial equality — onstage and off.


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.


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