Who’s afraid of a casting switch?

Portlander Michael Streeter thought he was going to produce "Virginia Woolf." Edward Albee's Trust said no. Why? Because Streeter had cast a black actor.

Producer Michael Streeter had been planning since November 2016 for his production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, intended to appear at Portland’s Shoebox Theatre in September. There was only one hurdle to clear before officially being granted the rights to perform the play, which he had on hold with theatrical publishers Samuel French: he sent headshots of the cast off to the Albee Estate for approval.

The cast of Woolf consists of four characters: a middle-aged married couple (George and Martha, famously played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 film), and a younger married couple (Nick and Honey). On May 15, Streeter got a call from the Albee Estate asking for him to elaborate on his choice of actor for the role of Nick. Streeter had cast a black actor, and was happy to explain why.

As he said to me by email, “This was a color conscious choice, not a colorblind choice. I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play. The character is an up and comer. He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962, the time the play was written. The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick. With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re. racial slurs?’”

Playwright Edward Albee, in an undated photo. UH Photographs Collection, 1948-2000/Wikimedia Commons

The Albee Estate was not convinced. They insisted that the actor be fired and the role be recast. Streeter refused. So the estate refused to grant the rights to the show. Streeter, shocked, took to Facebook: “I am furious and dumbfounded. The Edward Albee Estate needs to join the 21st Century. I cast a black actor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Albee Estate called and said I need to fire the black actor and replace him with a white one. I refused, of course. They have withdrawn the rights.”

Sam Rudy Media Relations, which represents the Albee Estate, offers a different timeline of events. In correspondence with Streeter that they shared when I requested comment, they argue that Streeter had not yet officially obtained the rights at all when he announced and held auditions for his production of Woolf.

They explained that “you [Streeter] were made aware on November 28, 2016 by Samuel French that any intended production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? requires, by contract, approval by the Albee Estate of your casting choices for all roles in the play before a license to produce the play can be granted. […] Insofar as the Albee Estate had not approved the actor in question, you were in violation of the agreement by hiring him in the first place. The decision to ‘fire’ him was yours and yours alone by virtue of your own misstep.”

The statement also accuses Streeter of advertising the show before officially receiving the rights, but Streeter says this is untrue: he only advertised the audition and booked the performance space, both of which, per the Estate’s own rules, he had to do before the rights were officially granted. He did create a graphic for the show, but its purpose was to advertise the audition online.

But the Estate’s argument over the timeline smacks of an attempt to discredit Streeter and distract from the point. Whether or not the language of firing is fair, the heart of Streeter’s post— that the Albee Estate will actively prevent a black actor from appearing in Woolf by declining to grant rights to such productions—remains. No matter when and how Streeter had presented the Albee Estate with his casting choice, they would have forced him to change it, or not be allowed to produce the show.

As the statement explained:

…it is important to note that Mr. Albee wrote Nick as a Caucasian character, whose blonde hair and blue eyes are remarked on frequently in the play, even alluding to Nick’s likeness as that of an Aryan of Nazi racial ideology. Furthermore, Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for non-traditional casting in productions of VIRGINIA WOOLF? that a mixed-race marriage between a Caucasian and an African-American would not have gone unacknowledged in conversations in that time and place and under the circumstances in which the play is expressly set by textual references in the 1960’s.

This provides clear evidence that productions of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? must, indeed, continue to be cast per Mr. Albee’s intention, and according to the legal rights held by his estate, which works with great care to ensure that the author’s intent is upheld as closely as possible and with great consideration given to his stage directions and dialogue.

Streeter had already considered this angle: “He is a biologist and it is suggested that he is looking to make everyone the same. (Nazism and Arianism is implied, but never specifically mentioned.) This could be a reasonable goal/fantasy for an African American biologist in 1962 for the distant future. The Nick I cast is bald. My request from the Albee Estate was going to be to change the term ‘blond’ to ‘bald’ and ‘blondy’ to ‘baldy.’

Streeter had already considered this angle: “He is a biologist and it is suggested that he is looking to make everyone the same. (Nazism and Arianism is implied, but never specifically mentioned.) This could be a reasonable goal/fantasy for an African American biologist in 1962 for the distant future. The Nick I cast is bald. My request from the Albee Estate was going to be to change the term ‘blond’ to ‘bald’ and ‘blondy’ to ‘baldy’ or ‘curly’. This would be a comparable insult. If they would not allow the change, the actors would have to say ‘blond’ and ‘blondy’ with a touch of irony. But I think it would still work. A minor drawback to an otherwise intriguing opportunity.”

Edward Albee, who died last September, was long known for his insistence that directors and actors adhere strictly not only to his dialogue, but to his stage directions and written descriptions. In a 2007 interview with LA Weekly, he said, “The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act. It isn’t. It’s a creative act, and then other people come in. The interpretation should be for the accuracy of what the playwright wrote.”

A 1984 article about his revocation of the rights for an all-male Woolf, which would have depicted the two husband and wife sets as gay couples, alludes to several productions that were shut down prior to that one.

Given that Albee was openly gay, it’s perhaps understandable that he would be sensitive to critical readings that insisted they had discovered encoded homosexual subtext where he did not intend it, as if it were impossible for a gay playwright to really be writing straight characters. But I was unable to find a publicized example of Albee rejecting a production of Woolf because of an actor’s race. In fact, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2002 season included a production featuring Andrea Frye, an African-American actress, as Martha. But this may be because Martha does not share Nick’s specific Aryan associations in the text.

Streeter does not question whether the Albee Estate has the right to do this. As both they and Streeter note, legally, they are empowered to grant or withhold performance rights as they please.

“I do not question the motives of those that made the decision,” Streeter adds. “I think they
have some fealty to a sense of integrity to Edward Albee’s desires. But I had hoped the negative aspects of Albee would die with him. I do not question their right to make the decision.”

It’s legal. But is it ethical? Is it fair that contemporary directors should be chained by the views of a writer who died a year ago, especially if those views demand active and explicit racial discrimination?

The battle for diversity in the American theatre has a massive canon of plays by and about white men to contend with. Companies that focus on the classics—which offer the benefit of long-expired copyright—have employed color- and gender-conscious casting for decades. And some writers whose works are still controlled by their estates are more flexible: within the last decade, there have been two Broadway productions of Tennessee Williams plays with all-black casts, plus one at our own Portland Center Stage just last year. Williams, however, also allowed all-black casts within his own lifetime, the first as early as 1953. Black actress Sophie Okonedo also recently starred on Broadway in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a production whose non-naturalistic design completely ignored the play’s stated 17th century setting.

While one could certainly wave the banner of historical accuracy to decry any of these productions, David Rooney wrote in his review of the 2008 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that the all-black cast “show[s] that with only minor excisions to the text, approved by the Williams estate, this indestructible American classic can be made accessible to a broader ethnic casting pool.” Surely a production can be interested in something besides naturalistic historical logic the likes of which Albee’s Estate insists upon—like broadening of the view of the very white and very male American theatrical canon.

The legacies of Williams and Miller’s plays have not somehow been irreparably harmed by some directors’ decisions to innovate. A highly relevant part of the above quote is, of course, “approved by the Williams estate.” But even if textual changes are rejected, permitting casting choices which conflict with small references in the written text seems to be, as Streeter said, “A minor drawback to an otherwise intriguing opportunity.”

One wonders what a fifty-year-old play (whose author is, again, no longer alive) that has had the benefit of thousands of productions, not to mention a classic film adaptation, possibly has to lose by allowing directors to experiment with ways to allow these old texts to be spoken by new voices. These classic American plays will not cease to be produced any time soon, and appearing in canonical roles like George and Martha and Willy Loman and Maggie the Cat will continue to hold a particular prestige. Therefore, there is value in allowing actors of color to appear in and challenge our long-held images of what these roles are and must be.

And if the only aim of production is, as Albee said, “the accuracy of what the playwright wrote,” then what is the point of continuing to produce these old plays at all? The playwright’s point has been made, his intent expressed, thousands of times. And who can really speak for a writer’s intention once they’re dead? Who’s to say how their views might have changed, or what a smart, persuasive director might have convinced them to try? This was Streeter’s hope: maybe the Estate would not police Albee’s works as severely as the man himself had.

But if the official Albee stance is that it is inappropriate for artists to attempt to reexamine his work in any meaningful way, maybe from this point forward, we should just read the play or watch the film instead, so that we can be absolutely certain we’re only experiencing an author-approved version.

While this story has already gained some national coverage, and Streeter’s story will be appearing in more outlets soon, the freedom to undertake such investigations feels particularly important here in Portland. We are, according to a high-profile article in The Atlantic a year ago, the whitest city in America, and our stages tend to reflect that. Streeter’s Woolf would have been an opportunity to present a classic of American drama without filling yet another stage with a cast of purely white faces. While authors’ estates have the legal right to permit and refuse productions as they please, slamming the doors on experimentation in the name of strict literalism and the will of a dead author seems like a recipe for dooming classic works to irrelevance.

Streeter has asked me to note that Samuel French (not Dramatist’s Play Service, as has been reported in some instances, though they have no involvement with professional productions of Woolf) was extremely helpful and supportive of the production. The final decision about the rights was down to the Albee Estate, not French. He also hopes to clarify that the Albee Estate is not the Albee Foundation, which Edward Albee established as a free playwriting retreat whose only criteria would be “talent and need.”

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