From the 1989 opening night of Miss Saigon in London, producer Cameron Mackintosh knew that he wanted the central role of the Eurasian pimp to be played on Broadway by British actor Jonathan Pryce. He believed that the production’s success hinged on the performance of this character, which Pryce had originated and helped to develop in London. Following the rules of the American Equity Association (AEA), permission for Pryce to play the role would normally have been a mere formality. However, a small group of militant Asian AEA members led a well-orchestrated protest against Pryce’s casting in what they regarded as an Asian role. Calling the decision to cast Pryce racist, the protesters claimed that Miss Saigon was being debased to the level of a yellow-face “minstrel show.” Their protest moved the AEA’s ruling council to go against their own rules by denying Pryce permission to play the role on August 7, 1990.
Feeling personally maligned, Mackintosh, who had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure appropriate Asian casting for the play’s other parts, decided to cancel the Broadway production, although advance ticket sales exceeded twenty-five million dollars. He felt that this introduction of “racial privilege” masquerading as “multi-racial equality” would not only disrupt the rehearsal process, but would establish a dangerous precedent by setting the rights of creative production teams against efforts of minorities to advance their own causes.
Worldwide public and press response to these actions was immediate, passionate, and almost entirely in support of Mackintosh. “When is censorship not censorship?” asked former New York mayor Ed Koch in the New York Post, “When it’s being exercised by Actors’ Equity.” Letters and phone calls from AEA constituents poured in condemning the action and prominent members threatened to resign if the ban was not lifted. The AEA council members then reversed their decision. Mackintosh was grateful, but refused to proceed without full AEA support. After several weeks an agreement was reached and on October 7, 1990, tickets went back on sale, thus ending one of the most serious crises in modern American theater.