Actor Sues 1776 Tour Producers for Racial Discrimination and Retaliation

Actor Zuri Washington alleges she was fired within hours of stating she was filing a formal complaint of racism with human resources.

By: Jan. 16, 2024
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Over the years, I’ve heard several black actors complain about how their preferred hair plan was dismissed by producers. Now one is suing producer NETworks Presentations, 1776 Touring, and several of their employees, claiming that increasing tensions, spurred on in part by producers not honoring her chosen hair plan preference, led to her being terminated after she expressed a desire to submit a written complaint of racial discrimination to human resources. Zuri Washington, who played Robert Livingston in the 1776 tour, is alleging several counts of racial discrimination and retaliation in a suit filed today in the Southern District of New York.

“I’m a self-advocate but I am a huge advocate for and of other people,” Washington said in an interview when asked if she hoped her lawsuit would mean more than a monetary settlement for her. “I want everyone in this industry, on every level, but especially on the actor level—because that’s what I do—I want us all to know that we have power. People strip themselves of their power easily in our industry and it makes me so sad. If I do nothing else in my life, I know that the ripple effect of this, and other actions that I’ve taken in the past and will continue to take in the future, is to remind people that they have power and they can, and should, use it.”

Tensions Mount

According to the Complaint filed today, Washington’s 1776 contract was expected to run December 5, 2022 through August 13, 2023. This 1776 is a tour of the Broadway production, directed by Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, featuring a multiracial cast of female, transgender, and nonbinary actors portraying the founders of America. (Associate Director Brisa Areli Muñoz was the one primarily responsible for getting the tour on its feet.) Washington said she was not the only black cast member unhappy with the way a hair-related request was treated by the production. 

Those kind of spaces that feel like they should be curated for us, or curated for the little person, that is trying to give us a voice, sometimes those are the most dangerous spaces for us to be in because they don’t actually set themselves up for success in order for us to be set up for success,” Washington stated. “What I was feeling was my tenure at 1776 was just like: ‘This is weird. It feels like we’re in a beautiful glass golden cage—it feels like it should feel good to do this and it doesn’t.’”

According to the Complaint, before the start of rehearsals, her agent reached out to the show’s management about a hair plan, but never heard back. Washington wanted to wear a wig in the show, and knew precautions would need to be taken to keep her hair, which the Complaint describes as “fragile, textured black hair,” safe.

The Complaint alleges that during the second week of rehearsals in December 2022, the Associate Hair Designer, Ashley Wise, held hair consultations for the cast during which they each were asked specifically whether they preferred to wear a wig. The Complaint states that Washington requested a wig or braid installation and specifically stated she was not comfortable performing in her natural hair.

“From the get-go, they were really good about saying: ‘Hey, we want you to feel comfortable. Tell us what you want, what you need, etc, etc, etc.,’” Washington said. “So we took them at their word, of course.”

In late January, Washington allegedly still had not heard back. According to the Complaint, on February 1, 2023, she reached out again and was told her hair should specifically be a two-strand “spring” twist, but was not told if that was the style to go under the wig or if this was what she was expected to wear in the show.

According to the Complaint, Washington had no additional information when the cast left for Utica, NY on February 6, 2023, in preparation for performances starting there five days later. The following day, during a tech rehearsal, the Complaint alleges Washington wore a wig cap, but Wise finally displayed the hairstyle the production desired, which did not involve a wig. As per the Complaint, Washington was told the show would cover the cost of implementing the style; Wise apologized to her, explaining her request for a wig was previously denied, but no one informed Washington of that denial. By this point, according to the Complaint, there were no hair appointments in Utica, so it ended up with the assistant choreographer braiding Washington’s hair, a process that took until 3am. (In the midst of this, Washington alleges she was pressured to wear her natural hair and forego the braiding.) The Complaint alleges that four white cast members were given wigs, but no black cast members were provided them.

The following week, once performances began, the Complaint alleges Washington requested a meeting to discuss the way she and another Black cast member were treated regarding their hair plans. According to the Complaint, while Washington requested Muñoz be in attendance, it was Company Manager Katie Cortez who listened to the concerns.  

A Covid Occurrence Causes Tensions to Boil Over

Soon after this first meeting, things became more problematic. There was a Covid diagnosis among the cast, leading to a company meeting regarding protocols at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, where the tour was officially opening. According to the Complaint, and Washington’s telling of the story, the cast was sitting in the house for the meeting and many cast members, not just Washington, were upset because they felt the 1776 protocols should be more stringent than the ones Actors’ Equity required.

“I am an assertive communicator,” she stated. “I know that for some people, especially being a woman, especially being a black woman, assertive communication can come across aggressively. But from my perspective, I was communicating clearly and assertively. What happened during that meeting is that I ended up cursing, but I curse a lot. I cursed during this meeting as an emphasis to what I was saying. I said: ‘I don’t give a f*ck what Equity said.’ And we’re sitting in the house, so the chairs in front of me, I kind of like hit them for emphasis.”

After that meeting, Washington alleges her (white) agent was called by General Manager Madeline McCluskey and told Washington was being “unruly” and “slamming chairs.” Washington was upset about her agent being called and requested Cortez provide her with more information on why it occurred. The Complaint alleges that Washington also requested an apology.

“Hair is so charged in general and especially for black women,” Washington, who also serves as a DEI consultant, explained. “I know plenty of white women that feel a lot about their hair, but for communities of color our hair is so tied to our identities and so, for me, to have been dealing with that issue for as long as I was dealing with it and then, on top of that, to now be castigated and kind of indirectly labeled as an aggressive, black woman, I sort of browned out. I didn’t completely black out but my brain was in and out of functioning.”

HR Meetings Lead to the End

According to the Complaint, on March 3 (when the show was already in Chicago), Cortez recommended Washington speak to a third-party HR person, Sarah Rajtik. Two tour stops later, that meeting took place. Washington alleges that she and an Equity representative met over Zoom with Rajtik on March 21, 2023. Washington said she recounted the distress she felt over how she was treated in relation to her hair plan and also what occurred around the Covid meeting.

“I said multiple times I felt like I was on the receiving end of racist treatment,” Washington said. “I was like, ‘I’m perceiving racism in these actions.’”

According to the Complaint, Rajtik stated that she needed to conduct other interviews. The follow-up meeting occurred three days later. Washington said that Rajtik told Washington that her agent was contacted because Washington cursed during the Covid meeting, while no other company member did. According to Washington, Rajtik then said no apology would be coming, to which Washington reacted by sticking up her middle finger. Rajtik then allegedly told Washington she could file a formal complaint of discrimination with human resources. According to the Complaint, Washington responded to the offer by saying: “You know what, yes, I will, because this is the only course of action available to me and I’m going to do it. I’ll take these f*ckers down that way if I have to. I’ve taken bigger f*ckers down before and I’ll do it again. So yes, I will be filing an official complaint with HR.”

According to Washington, Rajtik ended the conversation by telling Washington to write up the complaint, but she never had the opportunity to do so, because a couple of hours later, her employment was terminated.

The Complaint quotes the formal termination letter as stating Washington was fired for alleged “aggressive, uncontrolled behavior and threatening statement, including, but not limited to, ‘I will take these f*ckers down; I have taken bigger f*ckers down’ on a Zoom meeting with Sarah Rajtik and Kylie Kirk on Friday March 24th, 2023,” which allegedly “will not be tolerated and requires immediate termination.”

“They took [my words] as a threat as opposed to what it was, which is that I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to file a complaint and I’ll take them down by putting into HR an official claim due to my employer acting in bad faith,’” Washington said.  

According to the Complaint, Executive Producer Trinity Wheeler and General Manager Gregory VanderPloeg told an Equity representative that Washington was fired for being an “immediate safety concern” based on what she said during the final meeting. Defendants allegedly later specifically cited “egregious behavior” as the reason for her termination.

Washington said, not only did she lose a role that meant something to her, but psychologically this was all very traumatic and she is still dealing with that trauma.

The suit, filed by attorney Tanvir Rahman of Filippatos PLLC, names not only NETworks Presentations, LLC, but also 1776 Touring LLC, Wheeler, Vanderploeg, McCluskey, and Cortez. It alleges eight causes of action—all related to discrimination and retaliation or aiding and abetting same. The Complaint seeks a declaration “declaring that Defendants engaged in, and enjoining Defendants from continuing to engage in, unlawful employment practices prohibited by Section 1981 and the New York State Human Rights Law and New York City Human Rights Law in that Defendants discriminated and retaliated against Plaintiff on the basis of her race (Black/African American).” It also seeks money in the form of damages for lost wages and benefits and also compensatory damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages (which are essentially punishment damages for especially poor behavior). Attorneys fees are also requested.

Washington is aware that this suit might hurt her future career in the theater, but she believes filing is important regardless.

“If this loses me opportunities, then those opportunities were not meant for me,” she said, with clear emotion in her voice. “I love performing. I love it so much but as much as I love it, sometimes you have to let the things you love go if they’re hurting you that much. I still get emotional about it because it’s something that I thought I’d be doing since I was 12. I always knew: ‘I’m going to school for theater and I’m going to be on Broadway and this is the plan that I have to get there, etc.’ So it’s really hard to let go of that thing that’s been in my life for 20 years or more, but again if I have to pivot, I have to pivot.”

Emails to the 1776 tour press team seeking comment on the litigation have not been returned.