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Actors' Equity 'Saigon' Ruling Sparks Protest : Stage: A petition by dissenting members asks the union to reconsider its rejection of Jonathan Pryce to star in the hit musical's Broadway production.

August 10, 1990|SYLVIE DRAKE and DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The furor continued to swirl Thursday over the cancellation of the Broadway production of the London hit "Miss Saigon."

Dissenting members of Actors' Equity submitted a petition urging the union's council to reconsider its rejection of the casting of British star Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian.

Equity's decision in response to protests from Asian-American activists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, prompted "Saigon" producer Cameron Mackintosh to cancel the production altogether.

Mackintosh placed a three-column ad in the New York Times Thursday decrying Equity's decision. "The debate is no longer about the casting of 'Miss Saigon,' but the art of acting itself," the ad said. "Because we feel so strongly about our own artistic position, we understand the depth of feeling within the Asian acting community and believe we share many of their aims. We passionately disapprove of stereotype casting, which is why we continue to champion freedom of artistic choice."

Advance-ticket buyers were told in the ad how to obtain refunds. The $10-million production had a $25-million advance sale, the largest yet for a Broadway show.

Equity executive secretary Alan Eisenberg said that he would be "required to call a special meeting of the board" to reconsider the issue if more than 100 bona-fide members request it. By press time Thursday, Equity was still checking the validity of the 147 signatures on the petition submitted late Wednesday.

He said that, based on the petition, the vote would probably be reconsidered.

"I assume one way or another this will happen," he said, "but I'm not sure when."

"I'm hoping a compromise can be made," said the union's second vice president, Mary Lou Westerfield, who lives in Riverside County. "Possibly Jonathan could be brought in for a shorter period of time, or further auditions could be held, or perhaps they'll find someone wonderful (to take the part). I'm hoping cooler heads will prevail." Westerfield said that she chaired part of the fateful Equity council meeting on Tuesday by telephone hook-up from Los Angeles, but she declined to say how she voted.

Tuesday's vote, reportedly 23-19 with 44 of 79 council members present, was a response to pressure from "M. Butterfly" playwright Hwang and "Butterfly's" Tony-Award winning actor, B.D. Wong. Asked why the entire council wasn't polled by mail on such a crucial issue, Eisenberg replied, "We don't do that. You have to listen to the debate. It's a very large board. People are working. We never have more than 40-45 people there."

Bristling at the suggestion that slightly more than one-fourth of the board members approved the decision to bar Pryce, he said, "That's the reason we have a large board."

"It would be nice to have your cake and eat it too," said Doug Carfrae, an Equity council member from Los Angeles who couldn't attend the meeting because he was recovering from back surgery. "I'd like the show to go on--I don't want to lose jobs, but there is an issue we have to stand up for. It would have been nice if (Mackintosh) had taken the issue to arbitration, instead of getting angry and closing the door. He might very well have won; we may not have legal ground to stand on."

"I felt his threats to close the show were saber-rattling," said Carfrae, "and maybe they still are. Mackintosh is not stupid--he won't cut off his nose to spite his face."

If another meeting is scheduled, Carfrae said that he would "get up from my bed and make it to a telephone hook-up," but said he still isn't sure how he would vote.

Equity's incoming Western Regional Director, George Ives, said: "Artistic decisions of management belong to management, but along with that right comes a moral responsibility based on a proper search among the Asian actors who might be right for the part. That search never took place. An artistic decision was made in a vacuum. (Mackintosh) was saying, 'I don't want to have my mind opened.'

"There's no indication in the script that the Engineer is Eurasian. Nothing in it makes a point that he's mixed (blood)."

Bruce Adler, a council member who wasn't at the meeting, said that he probably would have voted to approve Pryce. "I don't think we have a legal leg to stand on," he said.

The mood was one of anger in London, where Pryce continues to star in the role of a hustler and brothel owner. "I don't see any way out of this," said Peter Plouviez, general secretary of British Equity. "I don't think Cameron Mackintosh would change his mind unless Equity says, 'We're sorry. We were wrong. Bring 'Miss Saigon' here with Jonathan Pryce," adding that he was sure that wouldn't happen.

American Equity, he said, is trying "to pursue a new policy. They haven't a policy they've applied to their own members. I think their decision is wrong. British Equity thinks it's wrong."

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