Out of town, on Broadway and on the road, the recent revival of “1776” was strategically cast in a nontraditional manner, with actors of diverse gender identities and racial backgrounds portraying the white, male Founding Fathers as they finalized the Declaration of Independence. “Putting history in the hands of the humans who were left out the first time around,” read the show’s marketing material.
But a lawsuit, filed earlier this week by actor Zuri Washington, alleges racial discrimination and retaliation on the show’s national tour. Washington hopes the complaint, which recounts producers’ dismissal of Washington’s hair preferences and alleges she was terminated after expressing an intent to submit a formal report of discrimination, reignites conversations about the industry’s inequitable treatment of Black hair and the harmful perpetuation of the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
“I was made to feel like I did something wrong in the course of this entire experience, and I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Washington tells The Times. “I could have done things differently, perhaps. But what they did to me is like a legal version of tone-policing, and like I’m being constantly punished for existing and telling my truth.”
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Washington filed the complaint against the tour’s production companies NETworks Presentations and 1776 Touring, and several of their employees. The tour’s production companies did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Washington, upon getting cast as Robert Livingston in December 2022, reached out to the tour’s management to finalize a hair plan — a collaborative decision that prioritizes a production’s design preferences as well as a performer’s practical needs. During consultations with the tour’s associate hair designer, Washington said she expressed her discomfort with wearing her natural hair onstage, as well as her desire to wear a wig or, at the very least, to install a braided protective style.
“I love my natural hair, but [producers] don’t realize what wearing my natural hair for eight shows a week entails,” she says, citing the lengthy amount of time and numerous products needed for proper maintenance, especially amid the variety of climates they’d be exposed to while on tour. Washington learned this the hard way: while previously touring “Hairspray,” the changes in altitude, temperature and humidity wreaked havoc on her locks.
“I was devastated — my hair almost fell out of my head, and I had to cut it to my ears,” she recalls. “I promised myself, never again would I leave the fate of my hair, something that’s so close to me and that I care about so much, up to other people. And given the ethos of the production, I was hoping I would feel secure and supported by the team behind the scenes.”
The complaint outlines that, after multiple emails to various members of the tour’s creative team, Washington was told to wear a protective style — specifically, a two-strand “spring” twist. But these instructions didn’t specify whether this style was to fit under a wig or to wear on stage; when she asked for clarity on the matter, her emails went unanswered.
According to the suit, Washington wasn’t informed about her onstage hair design until she arrived at the tour’s first stop in Utica, N.Y., in February 2023. Though multiple white actors in the cast were provided with wigs, including someone Washington says didn’t request one, Washington’s request for a wig, as well as those by the cast’s other actors of color, had been denied.
Washington was then presented with an image of a specific protective style the production team preferred her to wear, reads the complaint. Since there were no appointment openings at any nearby hair salons, the team offered to book one at the next tour stop and requested she wear her natural hair during performances in the meantime.
Though she felt pressured to do so by the production, Washington didn’t want to wear her natural hair on stage, so her hair was instead styled by the tour’s assistant choreographer into Marley twists, a style that’s arguably an easier one to do because it doesn’t need shaping. According to the suit, the process lasted until 3 a.m., amid tech rehearsals and during a meal break. The complaint also notes that another Black cast member had similar frustrations about their hair plan.
Had the production team informed her of their decision for her hair plan earlier, “I could have easily gotten it done when I was in New York, where there are braiding places everywhere,” says Washington, a Bronx native who’s the daughter of a hairstylist. “I could’ve bought products way in advance, and I would have showed up with my full arsenal. But they waited until the last minute to give me an answer.”
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At the time of the “1776” tour, the contract governing touring productions — held between Actors’ Equity Assn., the national union representing more than 51,000 professional actors and stage managers working in live theater, and the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry — only addressed the topic of hair in regard to changing one’s hair color or length for the duration of a role.
A new touring agreement, ratified in May 2023, specifically addresses hair texture as part of diversity, equity and inclusion standards — an addition made based on the historic New Deal for Broadway, the comprehensive industry-wide agreement led by nonprofit advocacy organization Black Theatre United. “We will not discriminate against anyone due to hair texture and will ensure all hair needs are addressed with respect and care,” reads the New Deal, signed by theater leaders in 2021.
“If the show genuinely requires hair of a certain texture that doesn’t match the actor’s natural hair, we, directors, commit to speaking with the actor and hair and costume designer early in the casting process (or, if that is not possible in the circumstances, as soon as possible thereafter) to outline our vision for the character and gauge the actor’s comfort level with alterations to their natural hair.”
Though productions are required to provide any hair products to maintain a performance hairstyle on tour, Washington said her requests often necessitated multiple follow-ups and took weeks to fulfill — long after those of the cast’s white actors, according to the complaint. Looking back, she considers it, at the very least, reflective of the industry’s wider misunderstanding of Black hair: “There’s definitely a lack of knowledge about how much time and money it takes to keep up, how politically charged it is and how it’s seen as a statement when in certain spaces.”
“Black hair has been a hot-button issue within the theatrical community for many years now so, at this point, it feels like willful ignorance,” she continues. “You’re putting us in these productions, but you’re not taking care of us, and it ends up imbuing harm on our spirits and our bodies that we have to use eight shows a week.”
Tensions continued to rise shortly after opening the tour, when the production held a meeting about its COVID-19 testing standards. There had already been one positive case in the workplace and, according to the complaint, several performers felt producers were not taking their safety concerns seriously, particularly as some actors suffered from preexisting conditions.
Washington, also delegated as the production’s Equity union deputy, voiced the group’s frustrations on the matter, swearing and slapping her hand against the back of a nearby chair for emphasis. After the meeting, the production’s general manager contacted Washington’s agent to report the actor as “unruly,” according to the complaint. Washington was the only cast member whose agent was called, even though Washington said numerous actors were impassioned in the meeting, including one who threatened to sue the show.
The complaint outlines that, in March 2023, Washington met with a third-party human resources professional, who informed her that the production’s management would not be issuing an apology for singling her out, and offered her the option of filing a formal complaint of discrimination with her union. “Yes, I will, because this is the only course of action available to me and I’m going to do it,” she replied, according to the complaint. “I’ll take these f— down that way if I have to. I’ve taken bigger f— down before and I’ll do it again. So yes, I will be filing an official complaint with HR.”
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Hours after announcing an intent to file the report, Washington was called by her agent and told that her contract, scheduled for the duration of the tour through August, was being terminated, according to the suit. The following day, she received an official termination letter that cited alleged “aggressive, uncontrolled behavior and threatening statement” in the meeting, and her union representatives were later told that Washington was an “immediate safety concern.”
“Race discrimination has absolutely no business on Broadway,” said Washington’s attorney, Tanvir H. Rahman of Filippatos PLLC. “In the theater industry where talented actors, especially actors of color, are expected to keep their heads down and voices low, our client, Zuri Washington, an incredibly talented, principled and thoughtful Black actor, has courageously decided to tell her story and hold the producers of ‘1776’ accountable for violating her right to work in an environment free of bias and retaliation.”
Washington hopes that going public with her experience will encourage other actors to continue to advocate for themselves and each other. “I used to think I’m the only one this has happened to, and it’s so uncomfortable to hash through the stories,” she says. “But if I can make a difference in this way, it will have been worth it.
“We have so much power, as individuals and as a collective. And we can continue pushing this industry forward, even if they go kicking and screaming into the future.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.