Performing in a Broadway show should be a dream come true for anyone stepping on the stage. Unfortunately for one actor, the last few months of working on Broadway’s Anastasia were a nightmare.
Last month, actor/dancer James Pierce III, tweeted allegations of bullying and racial discrimination against production staff for the show. His tweets included first-hand testimonials as well as emails from production leadership. He also posted emails between himself and representatives from Actor’s Equity Association(AEA) that not only demonstrate a lack of effort of their part to resolve the issues but also going as far as recommending Mr. Pierce not file complaints at all.
In speaking with Mr. Pierce, he told me that making his allegations public was in response to hearing misinformation about him from others in the industry. He wants to set the record straight. “If I’m going to be blacklisted, I want to make sure my story gets heard,” he tells me. “It’s unfair that they are controlling the narrative. No matter what it takes, I’m going to protect my name and my reputation.”
Wardrobe Issues Led to Boiling Point
Mistakes with costumes can happen in any Broadway show, but according to Mr. Pierce, they were a constant issue at Anastasia. Costume pieces would be missing; clothing wasn't placed where it needed to be for quick changes, garments weren't washed, etc.
Things reached their boiling on November 15, 2018. During a performance, Mr. Pierce had to change into another costume, and it required him to wear a t-shirt underneath. Finding t-shirts always seemed to be an issue which would usually result in apologies from his dresser, but the problems kept persisting. This led to Mr. Pierce having to purchase his own t-shirts and never being reimbursed for that.
According to Mr. Pierce, when he arrived downstairs to change and didn't see a t-shirt laid out, he needed to find his dresser, "Mattie," fast.
Calling out for him, after a couple of moments, Mattie finally appeared with a "What?", Mr. Pierce replied hastily that he needed a t-shirt.
From across the room, a woman who worked hair for the show, shouted, "Please?"
Mr. Pierce said to an actor next to him, "Am I supposed to say please when this happens every day?"
"Well, you could try to be a decent person," she replied from across the room.
Mr. Pierce recalls saying to her, "No, don't do that. That's not fair and don't come for my character if you don't want me to come back."
She then told him to "go to the stage manager" if he had wardrobe issues, to which he replied, "I have."
At that point, someone else in the room told them to drop it and told him to bring his issues to Bonnie Panson, Anastasia's Production Stage Manager, which Mr. Pierce had been doing. He had been doing it for weeks now.
Since this incident was just the latest in a long line of wardrobe issues and following the standard chain of command wasn't working, Mr. Pierce had been told by Ms. Panson to bring all concerns/issues to her directly.
He remembers telling Ms. Panson that he didn't want to do that because she already had a million things on her plate.
"Well, you can be my one million and one," he remembers her telling him.
So knowing that Ms. Panson wanted to be notified of these issues, Mr. Pierce went to her office and as was customary during a performance, left post-it notes briefly explaining the issue. Following the performance, Mr. Pierce went back to her office, knocked on her door.
"Who is it?" Ms. Panson allegedly called out.
"It's James," he replied.
"It's James," Ms. Panson allegedly said, sounding like she was talking to someone in the office with her.
Hearing that, Mr. Pierce figured she was with someone, so he started to walk away with the intent of coming back later, but that's when Ms. Panson allegedly swung open the door and yelled toward him, "James! I am leaving this door open because I want to feel safe and want everyone to know what's going on."
This startled and rattled Mr. Pierce.
"I hadn't had a chance to tell my side of what happened, and I was being treated like some 'thug on the street' that was about to attack her," he said. "I told her that I felt her actions were racially triggered, and I felt like I was being discriminated against."
"How dare you call me a racist!" Ms. Panson allegedly replied. "I have tried to be nice to you!"
At this point, Mr. Pierce left the theatre that day feeling shaken and confused by what had occurred.
The next day, after emailing and calling AEA representatives Walt Kiskaddon and Corey Jenkins, Mr. Pierce had a meeting with Ms. Panson along with AEA reps, Mr. Jenkins and Keith Sklar. According to Mr. Pierce, during the meeting, she accused him of creating a hostile work environment and complained that he had come continuously to her with wardrobe issues, despite that she told him to do that in the first place.
"I've tried to be there for you, how about I file a complaint against you?" she allegedly asked him. "Now, I feel threatened! You came in here last night, called me a racist and threatened me!"
According to Mr. Pierce, he hadn't done either and pointed that out to her, but Ms. Panson left the room, claiming, "I have a show to do."
Three days later, Mr. Pierce received a letter from production management that he had been written up for creating a hostile work environment.
Problems Persist, and New Ones Arise
Two days after the incident in the basement, Mr. Pierce arrived at a dressing room only to find an obscene drawing of a penis ejaculating on his signature on the wall. His name was the only one that had this obscene drawing above it. He was later told that multiple drawings had been made and erased but they “forgot” to erase the one above his name.
This image shows the rest of the signatures on the wall. The censored obscene image above Mr. Pierce’s name is on the far right. This image was posted on Instagram.
Mr. Pierce found out that the image had been there for over a year. Despite his and his agent's repeated requests to management and complaints to AEA, the image was only removed a day before the show closed.
After his confrontation with Ms. Panson, Mr. Pierce went to extra lengths to avoid contact with her, both physically and verbally. He remembers her blocking his path backstage seeming to initiate physical contact, which would have likely resulted in disciplinary actions against him. He had to alter his backstage traffic because he felt she made an extra effort to stand and block his path, standing in his space before an entrance and even making it a point to squeeze past him in the basement while he was changing. He also changed his exit after bows because she would go out of her way to pat him on the shoulder.
"Does that sound like someone who feels threatened?" he asks.
In early December, Mr. Pierce fell ill and, as was customary in this production, texted Ms. Panson that he would not be in to perform that evening. The next day, when she texted and called him to ask if he was coming in that day. He texted back that he was (which is a courtesy, not a requirement per his AEA contract according to Mr. Pierce). Upon arriving at the theatre, Ms. Panson allegedly approached him and said she wanted to talk to him. While he was going upstairs to the dressing room, she allegedly chased him up the stairs demanding to talk about his "leave of absence," which had been previously approved by production management. He replied that he didn't feel comfortable talking to her by themselves without AEA reps present, and she allegedly replied that she didn't feel safe with him either. So he proposed that they sit down with AEA representation the next day and she said that wasn't necessary. We reached out to Ms. Panson for comment but have not received a reply.
The next day, Mr. Pierce received an email from the show's general manager, Beverly Edwards, outlining that he could not cease communication with the PSM. He didn't know there was an issue with the text messages until Ms. Edwards emailed him on December 12. Despite him explaining the situation, he received another email from David Richards, President of RCI Theatricals, this time stating that if his "lack of communication" with the PSM continued, he could be dismissed from the show. According to Mr. Pierce, neither Ms. Edwards or Mr. Richards ever stepped in to try to resolve the issue and instead reprimanded and threatened termination. We reached out to RCI Theatricals for comment but have not received a reply.
Feeling Discriminated Against
James Pierce III was the only black performer in the cast of Anastasia. While being punished for creating a hostile work environment or being written up for lack of communication, he couldn’t help but notice that similar or worse behavior by white castmates was often ignored or tolerated. Worse yet, by the very people who had made complaints against Mr. Pierce.
He recalls during a fight call that a fellow actor called Ms. Panson over to have her to tell people in the house to “Shut the f*^k up!”. To which she allegedly simply replied, “Okay.”
“I’ve would never and have never spoken to anyone in that building like this,” Mr. Pierce says.
He recalls another cast member called out of a performance and posted online that he was attending another show and was never reprimanded for it. Mr. Pierce recalls Ms. Panson giving him grief over having to possibly miss a performance because he had to get to an animal shelter to pick up his dog, which had been missing for over a month. Yet Ms. Panson allegedly allowed an actress to call out of a two-show day to tend to her sick dog.
He also noticed that other performers would change choreography, not wear complete costumes and even leave the building during the show, yet none of them were ever reprimanded by production management.
An earlier issue arose over Mr. Pierce’s hair. While he would get his haircut at a barbershop in Philadelphia that knew how to cut a black man’s hair properly, he was told that he needed to have his hair cut by hair supervisors with the production, who didn’t. They would even go as far as to spray black follicles into his hair, which would result in the staining of clothes and even skin issues. While other members of the cast were free to see whatever barber they wanted, Mr. Pierce couldn’t. Finally, after going through two hair supervisors who didn’t know how to cut his hair, he was allowed to go to his barber in Philadelphia, once a month for a cut.
AEA’s Lack of Response
Throughout all of these issues of bullying and harassment, Mr. Pierce kept in constant communication with his AEA reps, primarily Corey Jenkins, who serves as the Broadway representative for AEA’s Eastern Region. While he always responded in a timely fashion, according to Mr. Pierce, there was a noticeable lack of progress in resolving these issues.
OnStage Blog reached out to both Mr. Jenkins, along with Mary McColl, AEA's Executive Director for comment. We received the following statement from AEA’s Communication Director Brandon Lorenz:
“The way this blogger has chosen to represent the situation is absolutely not accurate and we strongly disagree with the conclusions drawn. Everyone should have a workplace that allows them to feel safe and be focused on their performance. That is why staff arranged to be present at two separate meetings with this member and his employer to discuss his situation and that is also why this member was provided information by multiple staff members about his options, including how to make a claim, should he have chosen to do so.”
While AEA claims Mr. Pierce never chose to file formal complaints, he made it clear in emails to Mr. Jenkins and other AEA reps that he, indeed, wanted to move forward on filing formal complaints against Ms. Panson and others. But according to a response from Mr. Jenkins, he recommended against it because it would seem “retaliatory.”
In a November 16 email, in response to Mr. Pierce requesting to file a formal complaint, Mr. Jenkins responded with the following:
“I would recommend as a possible alternative to a formal complaint against [HAIR Dept Member], another option would be to address her complaint of a hostile work environment created by you with a written response as to what led to you becoming upset in the first place and provide an explanation for you choosing the words that you used. This may be perceived well, and would not be perceived as retaliatory in anyway as a formal complaint, totally up to you though.”
Three days later on November 19, Mr. Pierce responded with an email stating he still wanted to go through with a formal complaint of discrimination. He states in an email,
While it is not known if AEA did anything regarding his request, Mr. Pierce told me he was never put in touch with Nicole Smart, AEA’s Diversity Director, or anyone to discuss the racial discrimination claims.
Later in conversation, according to Mr. Pierce, Mr. Jenkins encouraged him to “lay low” and allegedly said “Discrimination is illegal, being a dick is not” as to explain why not to file charges.
During another phone conversation regarding being written up, Mr. Pierce remembers Mr. Jenkins once again telling him to lay low and implying that filing a complaint against specific individuals could potentially hurt his career.
“Kim Kelley (Anastasia’s Company Manager) and Bonnie Panson are strong women and will go hard at you, so it’s best to stay under the radar,” Mr. Jenkins allegedly said. He also told Mr. Pierce he would deny saying that if it was ever brought up.
Speaking with another AEA member, when they had an issue where filing a complaint was needed, “AEA backed me to the hilt, no questions asked,” they told me. It should be noted that the member who told me that is white. It’s unclear why Mr. Pierce’s requests to file racial discrimination complaints were being met with pushback from his AEA reps.
However, Mr. Pierce continued to ask to file a formal complaint. In an email on December 7 to Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Kiskaddon, he explicitly states, “I want to file a formal complaint about Bonnie.”
In response to this email, Mr. Jenkins offers for Mr. Pierce to come to a meeting at AEA offices. However does not directly reply or mention Mr. Pierce’s request to file a formal complaint.
On December 12, after receiving the communication from David Richards, Mr. Pierce sent another email to Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Kiskaddon letting them know he wanted to file formal discrimination complaints.
In another email to Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Pierce made his frustrations known that nothing was being down regarding filing a claim as well as resolving some of the issues going on backstage.
On April 2, after Anastasia had closed, Mr. Pierce had a meeting with Ms. McColl. He describes the meeting as “productive.”
“It was a wonderful meeting,” he says. “She apologized and said that she was going to figure out why AEA dropped the ball on this one.”
According to Mr. Pierce, he reiterated that he wanted to file a formal complaint against RCI. Ms. McColl allegedly told him that by doing so, producers would likely get involved, give him some information on how to do so and to take some time to think about whether or not he wanted to do this. However, after Mr. Pierce read the information that Ms. McColl provided, he saw that since the show had closed, he had to forfeit his claim. This all even though he had made it clear, repeatedly, he wanted to proceed months before while the show was still running.
Jeff Loeffelholz and Professional Bullying Awareness
On June 29, 2018, actor Jeff Loeffelholz committed suicide in his New York City home. Mr. Loeffelholz had been a 22-year cast member of Broadway’s Chicago. According to a group of friends and colleagues, director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman wanted to get rid of Loeffelholz and that the duo subjected the cast member to a humiliating rehearsal on June 22 in hopes that he would quit. They allegedly made him sing a song repeatedly, telling him that 'You always do it wrong.' A week later, Loeffelholz was dead.
Investigations by both the production and AEA were launched. While the results of those investigations haven’t been made to the public, Leslie Stifelman was replaced as musical director for Chicago.
Due to the attention paid to the details Loeffelholz’s treatment and his death, Actor’s Equity held a national meeting in December “to help empower members with more information on how we can all work to eliminate harassment in the theatre.”
They also formed a committee, chaired by Equity President Kate Shindle, dedicated to preventing sexual harassment and workplace hostility in the theatre.
"Our employers have an obligation under federal law to ensure that everyone can go to work without the fear that they will be harassed," said Ms. Shindle. "We take that obligation very seriously, and this new committee will endeavor to make sure that every Equity workplace is free from harassment and bullying."
This past May, AEA announced the creation of an anonymous hotline where members can report workplace harassment and bullying. It is not known how many calls the hotline has received since it was announced.
AEA provided OnStage Blog with the following statement regarding the hoteline and their response to bullying accusations:
This year, Equity introduced a new tool for members to report harassment and bullying in the workplace – an anonymous hotline that can be accessed by phone at 833-550-0030 or online at ActorsEquity.org/Safety. The hotline follows more than two years of increased efforts to prevent harassment that started in 2016 when Equity partnered with The Actors Fund to develop a program to help Equity staff respond to members who had questions or complaints about harassment. Since then, Equity has requested that all Equity employers provide a copy of their own harassment policies to the union, as well as make those policies available to Equity members at the first rehearsal and throughout their employment under an Equity contract. Equity now has hundreds of policies on file as a resource for members. In addition, Equity has provided additional staff training throughout the association and adopted a Code of Conduct – for elected officials and rank-and-file members – that is read aloud at activities, events and meetings. In 2018, Equity created the President’s Committee to Prevent Harassment, which was formed to recommend additional forward-looking strategies to prevent harassment and bullying in the theatre.
Trying to Move Forward
In the months since Anastasia’s closing, Mr. Pierce has heard a lot of misinformation and lies being spread about him. “Two people from the show met up with me outside of work to tell me what others are saying about me,” he says. “And a stage manager from another show inquired as well because she was hearing rumors about me.”
So he wants to set the record straight to not only clear his own name, but also raise attention that issues like these are very much present within Broadway productions.
Since tweeting about his harassment and bullying, he has received both positive and negative responses.
Mr. Pierce tells me that he doesn’t want this to define his experience with Anastasia. “It was a beautiful experience, and I learned a lot. But I want to raise the awareness so that other performers don’t suffer the same treatment I did and that AEA and other unions take the diligent steps in protecting their performers.”
We will update this article with any new information gathered.