Author’s Note: I find it especially important to stress that the views expressed in this article are my own. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Turf as a business, or more specifically, its authors. I say this because The Turf is a community of people I respect and love. As the Managing Editor for the site, I feel it’s my duty to ensure that their points of view and opinions are protected and celebrated, regardless of my own thoughts on the matter. This article is discussing something I am quite sure multiple authors here disagree with, and in no way do I want this article to be construed as a viewpoint that they all must hold.
Also please note: there is extremely strong and hateful language used in this piece.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet
– Romeo and Juliet – 2.2 – William Shakespeare
This is a sports site, but today I’m going to take a break from that. I’m assuming most of you know this, but this site’s roots are in theatre. We were founded by Kinky Boots on Broadway cast member Justin Colombo and the majority of our writers are embedded in the arts community. We run the gambit from technical theatre professionals to actors to directors to arts administrators. So when an uproar hits this community, it hits extremely close to home. I don’t have many podiums, but I do have The Turf. So today I’m going to hijack this site to talk about something else — The Actors’ Equity Association Gypsy Robe.
One of the most famous opening numbers in Musical Theatre history features a beloved Jewish man telling the audience how his community keeps their “balance”. “That I can tell you in one word. Tradition.” He proclaims. Indeed, Fiddler on the Roof is a story about many things, not the least of which is the battle between tradition and modernity. The old versus the new. It beautifully shows a family caught between the two sides, and the parents trying to best love their children and their faith when the two don’t seem possible.
Theaters are full of traditions. From superstitions like never saying “Macbeth” in a theater, to leaving a ghost light at center stage whenever a show is dark. For Broadway, that tradition is the Gypsy Robe. The robe is given to the chorus member of a Broadway Musical with the most Broadway credits. Before half hour of the opening night of the show, the robe is presented to its recipient, who then must circle the stage 3 times while cast, crew, and creative team members touch the robe. They also then visit each dressing room in the robe. They then visit the next opening night on Broadway and present the robe to the next recipient. It is a lovely, wonderful ceremony, that I one day hope to be a part of.
The tradition was created in 1950, when Bill Bradley wore Florence Baum’s (both chorus members in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) dressing gown. He then sent it to Arthur Partington on the opening night of Call Me Madam who in turn sent it to a chorus member in Guys and Dolls. The tradition still lives on today, with a telling dash of theatrical flair added over the years.
Origins of the term “Gypsy” in theatre
I have been searching for how Broadway chorus members came to be known as “Gypsies”. The closest I have found is from this article from The Word Detective:
“I have been, as yet, unable to pin down a debut date for “gypsy” in the sense of “a dancer or chorus member in the company of a musical play,” but, based on what I have found, I’d be willing to bet that the term dates back to at least the 1940s, and quite possibly much earlier. Oddly enough, I have yet to find a dictionary that even lists “gypsy” in this sense, which is strange, since it’s hardly obscure. In any case, the term “gypsy” in the theatrical sense comes from the fact that dancers or chorus singers work in one show during its run (on Broadway, for instance), and then move on to another, frequently performing in many dozens of shows in the course of their careers. Some “gypsies” eventually, after years of hard work, graduate to starring roles and fame; the actress, singer and dancer Chita Rivera is perhaps the most notable example of starting out as a “gypsy” and ending up a major star.”
Chita Rivera is a perfect example, because of her quote (currently being posted a lot on my facebook):
What it means to be a “Gypsy”
If you ask any actor in New York City where they should go to look for an apartment sublet, probably the first answer will always be the same, Gypsy Housing. Gypsy Housing was a facebook group where people posted sublets they’re offering, or what they were looking for, to help people cover rent while away on gigs, or to find housing before their current situation expires. I say “was” because a couple months ago, they changed their name. More on that later. I’ve used Gypsy Housing multiple times myself, and when I was first added to that group, I loved being a part of it. I constantly tagged friends in posts I saw, I recommended people list their sublets on there, it was a community that I felt proud to be a part of. The artists. The Gypsies.
When I would get an acting gig I would turn straight to Gypsy Housing. “Hey Gypsies” was always the kickoff to my posts. To me Gypsies represented nomads with a flair for the dramatic. A passionate tribe of nomads who love their community fiercely, support each other fully, and rarely give a f**k what the outside world thinks about them. That was my word association with the word “Gypsy”.
There’s just one problem with this wonderful theatre stuff. “Gypsy” is an ethnic slur.
Enter the Romani People (My Research Section)
I’m not going to write a history of the Romani people here, as I would assuredly be offensively concise in the interest of time. If you’re curious here are some links:
- Encyclopedia Brittanica – “Roma People”
- EuroNews – “Who are the Roma People” – Seamus Kearney
- Open Society Foundations – “Gypsies, Roma, Travellers: An Animated History” – Adrian Marsh
- Off the Grid – “How Bohemians Got Their Name” – Andrew Berman
- Online Etymology Dictionary – “Bohemian”
The Romani people originated in northern India, and have faced racism, forced migration, and ostracism for centuries; across every inhabited continent. The term “gypsy” came from the word “Egyptian” because when they first arrived in Europe they were (incorrectly) thought to have come from Egypt. Their (perceived) aloof nature, nomadic (forced or not) background, rich cultural history, and fierce sense of pride led to the cultural association we have today. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the term “Bohemian” as well. The term as it relates to artists comes from the Czech Republic province of Bohemia being one of the only places where the Roma People were welcomed on arrival. Later, when they arrived in France, they were mistakenly thought to have started in Bohemia. Their artistic culture lead Parisian artists to be named “Bohemians”.
Esmerelda from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably the most famous Gypsy in popular culture. A separate, but equally important conversation to read about is what happened involving the casting of Esmerelda at an Ithaca New York High School in the stage version of the show, and the controversy that emerged from it. What I learned from following that story was that “Gypsy” is indeed a term for an ethnic minority, and that a person of color should be placed in that role. This is important for later.
“Gypsy” as an Ethnic Slur (Research Section #2)
Much like the history of the Romani people, I won’t deep dive into the history of this. However here are some important links to gain some perspective.
- The New York Times – “The Gypsy in Me” – Cristiana Grigore
- The Daily Beast – “American Gypsies are a Persecuted Minority that is Starting to Fight Back” – Nina Strochlic
- “Racism and the Romani People” – Jim C. Hines
- Bitch Media – “The Harmful History of “Gypsy” – Jessica Reidy
- Pop Matters – “Cher was no Gypsy” – Robert R. Thompson
- New Heroes & Pioneers – “The Misrepresentation of the Roma People in Popular Culture”
These are important perspectives as we look towards the societal perception of the word. Because I don’t think Stevie Nicks was being racist towards the Romani People. I don’t believe that Cole Porter was being racist when he wrote “The Gypsy in Me” for Anything Goes. I don’t believe that Cher, or Jimmy Buffet, or Gypsy Rose Lee, or Woody Guthrie, or any of the numerous other people who have created art and culture with the term “Gypsy” were making any kind of statement on the Romani people. They were writing for this idealized term that I associated with earlier.
That association is built on a foundation of racism. The word was then coopted (or dare I say appropriated) by the theatre and arts community. Whether or not the intent is racist, is irrelevant.
The Gypsy Robe
So back we come to the Gypsy Robe. This week, the Actors’ Equity Association sent an email to its members detailing that the name of the robe is changing. Their reasoning?
The word “Gypsy” originates as a slur employed against the Romani people. Romani (also called Roma) people didn’t travel from place to place because they wanted to. Historically, they traveled because no one, no country, no sovereign state, accepted them. Still today they suffer persecution and are treated as second-class citizens.
Good intentions don’t sanitize the huge impact an expression has, and how much the words we use matter. We can – and we will – continue the Robe tradition. But we cannot appropriate someone else’s identity without their voice attached to it. The Robe has carried as its name an insult to people who have literally not been allowed the same kinds of privileges and rights that we all have created a union to defend. That must stop.
– Kim Jordan, Chair, Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs
What came next was a backlash and outcry that I have to admit, I was nowhere near ready for.
Accusations of censorship, rampant political correctness, facism, and more came from people who do not want the Robe to be renamed. What was more troubling for me, was that it was coming from people who are political activists for racial equality. The most common response was related to heritage and tradition. They argued that if we change the name, we are tainting those who have claimed that name in the past. That we are censoring their words and tarnishing their legacies.
I mentioned the Ithaca High School production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame earlier. The reason is many people in my social sphere posted in support of casting the character properly, but are also angry about the Gypsy Robe. If we are acknowledging that ethnic minorities are correct in wanting the role to be properly cast, should we not also listen to them when they say a word offends their heritage?
The Dark Side of Passion
What has come out of this debate is unquestionably ugly. I have personally witnessed tears, name-calling, vitriolic attacks on Union leaders, and Facebook friends removing me from their sphere over my opinion here. I feel strongly about empowering those without voices, and Equity members of Romani descent have been asking for this as society has shifted towards an awareness of cultural appropriation. This debate does not affect me personally, but it does affect many that I love. A queer female friend of mine of Middle Eastern heritage texted the following to me: (Author’s Note: she gave me permission to use her words on the condition that she remain anonymous)
“good thing towelhead wasn’t a cute turn of the century nickname
bc my friends apparently think its equivalent is a joyful celebration of culture.
And I’m only referencing towelheads bc that’s my personal panic button. It sounds comical if you aren’t aware of the history
And a group of actors and writers i thought were allies just suggested to me today that they wouldn’t have my fucking back in areas of middle eastern or female or queer hate
And that scares the fuck out of me”
Fear. That’s the important part to me. Over the last 72 hours as I’ve reached out to people in my research for this article, time and time again I’ve had people of color, women, LGBTQI friends, and more express fear at the backlash. They worry about what it means when their own heritages come into question. Will the people who profess themselves to be allies of equality stand with them? The reaction to “Gypsy” seems to show a resounding “no”.
As a separate note, I’ve seen many people who are mad about changing the term “Gypsy” post against the casting of Sierra Boggess as Maria in an upcoming concert version of West Side Story. As one of these people on my timeline posted “cultural appropriation is not cute, and shame on Sierra Boggess for continuing the trend.” I hope other people besides myself have noted the irony.
The big thing that I’ve seen be posted over and over again is that while artists and the Actors’ Equity Association have been making great strides, this is a new type of push. We are taking something that has been beloved for generations, and saying its continued usage is negative. For them, this is different than standing up to racially offensive casting, or yellow face. There have been cries of “Joan Rivers is rolling in her grave” and memes of George Carlin posted. What I see talked about again and again is that in taking this step, the Actors’ Equity Association is destroying the tradition and heritage of something great and wonderful, which was never meant as an offense, and so shouldn’t be taken that way.
We’ve been here before
I’m sorry, did I say this wasn’t going to be a sports article? I lied. Because this story has played out again and again throughout American history. We no longer refer to Minstrel shows, and we’ve eliminated black face. That does not mean that we can’t recognize their cultural significance, or even love movies with characters in blackface. Things can, and should, be viewed critically including a lens of the time in which they inhabited.
Which brings me to the Washington Redskins, the Cleveland Indians, and Chief Wahoo. For some context, you can check out Justin Colombo’s fantastic articles about the Indians’ mascot for The Turf. There has been a massive movement in this country to change the name of the Washington football team, and to drop the logo for the Indians. I think it’s important that we look at both, because the context of each protest can inform how we look at the Gypsy Robe.
Changing Names and Icons of Beloved Traditions and Heritages
I think of Broadway fans as sports fans quite often. Their rabid arguments for (and defenses of) their favorite shows, the merchandise worn to show their loyalties, and their social media campaigns are a perfect comparison to sports fans. When people from around the world started pushing for the Redskins to change their name, Dan Snyder said the following in a letter to season ticket holders in 2013:
“when I consider the Washington Redskins name, I think of what it stands for. I think of the Washington Redskins traditions and pride I want to share with my three children, just as my father shared with me — and just as you have shared with your family and friends. … After 81 years, the team name “Redskins” continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”
The correlation, to me, cannot be more clear. Don’t change the name because of its associations to the past of an unrelated entity. The name was coopted to mean something new, and that meaning holds more value than to those to whom it is an affront. Generally speaking people don’t have an issue with the logo, just the name. It is similar to peoples’ reactions to the logo for the Chicago Blackhawks. That team was named for the military division the founder served in, which was named in honor of a Native American member. The Blackhawks do not use Native American imagery or stereotypes as part of their merchandising or presentation, just the logo. The Redskins logo is generally viewed as proud, strong, and feels respectful to heritage. The name? Very different.
This is in direct juxtaposition with both the name and logo for the Cleveland Indians. The name was (supposedly) derived in honor of Louis Sockalexis, a former player and member of of the Penobscot tribe in Maine. However history has proven that the Sockalexis spent his career dealing with overt racism for his heritage. It seems both unlikely that the “Indians” were ever meant to honor him. We can talk at length about the term “Indian” being used for “Native American”, but that’s a different article. Generally speaking, most people have more of a problem with the Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo, than they do with the name. Much the same as people having far more problems with the “Tomahawk Chop” than with the Kansas City Chiefs’ name. Or the Atlanta Braves.
Chief Wahoo is a grinning caricature of a Native American. It has long been the most glaring example of racism in Native American-inspired iconography and the announcement that its being retired was met with great fanfare. The difference between Chief Wahoo and the logos for the Redskins, or the Blackhawks, is stark. The former fills a wide range of stereotypes not unlike blackface for those of African descent. The latter (while not without their own controversies) are often considered proud, strong pieces of imagery. Chief Wahoo is reviled by most.
Back to the _______ Robe
I think the most important distinction is that no one is arguing to get rid of the Robe tradition. Its imagery is profound, its place in tradition and heritage important, and it in no way stereotypes or harms anyone. Much like the Washington Redskins, it is the name that must immediately change, not the logo. By taking the proactive step of changing the name, Actors’ Equity is acknowledging the offense given to an ethnic minority who makes up a portion of its members. If one such member were to receive the robe, have it put on their body, and have the name associated with it be an ethnic slur about their own identity, that is a far worse problem than renaming a tradition.
To my friend’s point from earlier, if we had a similar tradition over the last few decades about how women put their hair in towels to dry them after a shower and we created the “towelhead” tradition, would we really expect a member of Muslim heritage to laugh along? I truly hope not.
There has been a disconnect between the reaction to “Gypsy” vs “Redskin” on my social media. In 2014 a friend of mine who I greatly respect posted the following article from The Onion:
and yet posted about the Gypsy controversy this week:
“I know it’s fun to argue about whether ‘gypsy’ is a bad word — spoiler: it’s not, but if a few people feel better if a robe has a different name, who cares?”
Yes he and I agree on the outcome, but greatly disagree about the path to getting there. It is important that the robe has a different name. Very important. To post a satirical article showing very clearly his opinion on the Redskins name, while defending the term “Gypsy” as inoffensive, shows a cultural blindness running rampant in our community. A quick search for the term “Redskin” on my Facebook brought up many people who have supported one and not the other.
Changing the Name
Earlier this year, the aforementioned Gypsy Housing renamed itself to Ghostlight Housing. The group was founded by Matthew Kilgore, who is also a current Eastern Chorus Councilor for Actors’ Equity. He was part of the group who voted to change the name of the robe. In a post to the group in February, Mr. Kilgore explained his reasoning for the name change:
In response to ongoing polarizing views over the name of this group, I am pleased to announce the transition to a new name. While Gypsy Housing was never intended to discriminate against any ethnicity, race, creed, heritage, or culture, Gypsy is, in fact, a racial slur used derogatorily against Romani people. The name of this group grew from my background as a chorus dancer and harkens back to the era of the Broadway “gypsy.” The name was never meant to disparage or denigrate.
However, after a long time of personal reflection, I decided to change the name to reflect the inclusiveness of the performing arts community. Acting in consultation with a small group of trustworthy friends, I arrived at our new name. I strove to create a new name that reflected the community of the performing arts, that paid homage to those that earn their living in all facets of show business, and that easily rolled off the tongue. From this day forward you are members of the community of Ghostlight Housing.
Actors’ Equity has created a survey for its members to nominate alternative names for the Robe. Having seen many people nominate “The Bohemian Robe” online, I hope that we learn from our past mistakes.
A Robe By Any Other Name
This article started with Billy Shakespeare, and he’s without question the best answer to this problem. People have conflated the issue of using the word “gypsy” to meaning “traditions associated with the word are bad”. But this couldn’t be farther from the case. The robe has created a beautiful tradition that we are all proud of. Changing the Washington Redskins will not erase the team’s football history. Changing Chief Wahoo will not take away from the Indians’ World Series victory. Changing the Gypsy Robe will not harm the rich culture and history of performing artists. You’ve now seen pictures of the robe 4 times in this article. My question is, if you never read the rest of this article, and I showed you this:
Would anything about the joy of this photo change if I told you this was called the Baum Bradley Robe Ceremony? Or the Legacy Robe? No. The tradition is what we should defend, not its outdated and inappropriate name.