Term of Affection? Ethnic Slur? Theater Union Decides That ‘Gypsy’ Must Go.
Posted April 20, 2018 4:08 p.m. EDT
They are itinerant singers and dancers. Chorus members. The names below the title. But should they still be called gypsies?
Actors’ Equity Association doesn’t think so. The union that represents stage performers announced this week that it would cease using the title “Gypsy Robe” to describe one of its most cherished insider rituals — the passing of a colorful patchwork garment from one chorus to another on a Broadway show’s opening night — citing the potential offense to Roma people.
The action is prompting a combination of reflection and head-scratching in the tight-knit theater world.
Already, some locutions, like the term “gypsy run-through” to describe an industry-only dress rehearsal, have largely disappeared from use, and a Facebook group that provides lodging advice to chorus members has dropped the name “Gypsy Housing.”
But the industry’s major charity, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, is sticking with its annual “Gypsy of the Year” fundraiser, which collects millions of dollars for health care. And the word remains widely used by performers themselves.
“It’s an honor to be called a gypsy — it’s a title to be proud of,” said the stage actress Chita Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner who has been performing on Broadway since the 1950s. “If anything it brings attention to the word and the group. I have always considered myself a gypsy and still do.”
Equity, which has been increasing its focus on diversity, has decided now is the moment for the term to go. “We have to be sensitive to the words we use,” said R. Kim Jordan, the chairwoman of the union’s Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs. “We appropriated the name years ago, and we appropriated it lovingly, with no malintent, but it’s no longer an appropriate name to use.”
To many, the word Gypsy, referring to Roma people who migrated from India centuries ago, is pejorative, no matter the context.
“It is an ethnic slur,” said Carol Silverman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon who describes herself as “a non-Romany activist-scholar.”
She said she was pleased by the union’s decision: “This could serve as a model for other organizations.”
Some Roma people use the word themselves, but general usage is often scrutinized, in part because the word can have negative connotations, and in part because it has a problematic etymology. (It is derived from “Egyptian,” while the Roma people trace their heritage to India.) It is often used to suggest activity that is illicit, like a “gypsy cab,” which is generally unlicensed.
“The word Gypsy is being phased out in many places, since the Romany voice has gained strength in recent years and is voicing its objections,” said Ian Hancock, director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
The Equity Gypsy Robe ceremony dates to 1950. On opening night for every musical with a chorus, the robe is given to the person with the most Broadway chorus credits; the recipient puts on the robe, circles the stage three times to allow the rest of the cast to touch the robe and then visits each dressing room as a sort of good-luck blessing before the curtain goes up.
Each show that gets the robe adds a memento, signed by cast members, and then the robe is passed to the next show that opens; when the robes get too big, they are retired, and some are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of the City of New York.
The most recent ceremony was Thursday at the Lincoln Center Theater revival of “My Fair Lady,” and the next (and last using the Gypsy Robe name) will be Monday at “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” The ceremony will continue next season but will be renamed. Equity is surveying its membership about what to call it.
The history of the usage is not clear, but Laurence Maslon, an arts professor at New York University and the author of the forthcoming “Broadway to Main Street,” said it appears to relate to the fact that until the early 20th century, many American actors proudly earned a living by traveling from city to city. “It was a badge of honor, not a badge of shame, that you were itinerant,” he said. “You saw more people that way.”
The word deeply permeated the industry. In his 1963 autobiography, “Mister Abbott,” the Broadway producer George Abbott wrote of Broadway dancers: “We call them the Gypsies, and they call themselves that. They are homeless, wandering people for the most part, defying all the conventions.”
The 1970 musical “Applause,” based on the movie “All About Eve,” features a song titled “She’s No Longer a Gypsy,” about a scheming understudy who becomes a star. And in 1976, actress Bonnie Franklin, presenting a choreography prize at the Tony Awards, described herself as “a gypsy from Santa Monica,” and added, “the term gypsy lovingly applies to all dancers in the Broadway theater.”
Jordan said there had been no pressure on Actors’ Equity to change the ceremony name. And one scholar and activist contacted for this article had a mixed reaction to the move.
“The ceremony seems like a lovely ritual, and changing its name would not have been my first choice of a battle to fight,” said Petra Gelbart, a curator at RomArchive, a digital archive. “That said, the fact that the term Gypsy is so often used to denote free-spirited or traveling lifestyles has real-life repercussions for actual Romany people. We are always being reduced to ridiculous stereotypes that can make it difficult to find employment or social acceptance.”
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is sticking with “Gypsy of the Year” for two annual performances that for 29 years have celebrated a fall fundraising campaign. “Words have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used,” said Tom Viola, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Even words that may have once been intended as a slur can be, in fact, reclaimed with pride.”
Viola said the performances celebrate “the talent, generosity and unique skills of those performing in the ensemble.” He added, “In our theatrical community, ‘the gypsy’ is beloved.”