A proposed revival of Edward Albee’s landmark 1962 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has renewed a long-simmering debate about freedom of expression and the frequently fuzzy line between the rights of creative versus interpretive artists. At issue is the Albee estate’s decision to decline a license for the revival after the Portland, OR, director announced the casting of an African-American actor to play Nick, a young academic at a tony New England college who with his wife, Honey, spends a raucous, drunken evening with the older George, a longtime professor, and his wife Martha, daughter of the college president. The non-professional production was planned for the 35-seat Shoebox Theatre.
In the latest development, the Dramatists Guild has asserted the absolute right of Albee’s estate to control casting decisions. (Albee died in September.) And the estate has accused the director, Michael Streeter, of misrepresenting key facts about the planned revival.
“The vast majority of roles in Edward Albee’s almost 30 plays can and should be cast diversely,” Sam Rudy, Albee’s longtime spokesman, told Deadline. “The Estate is eager to encourage as much diverse casting as possible. There are many opportunities for diverse casting throughout the body of Edward’s work with the most recent example being Sophie Okonedo and Archie Madekwe as Stevie and Billy in the current West End production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?”
During his lifetime, Albee was a staunch and tireless defender of free speech; the photograph accompanying this story was taken on a freezing New Year’s Day morning outside the main branch of the New York Public Library, where the playwright appeared in solidarity with PEN, the international human rights watchdog, to protest China’s latest jailing of a dissident writer. At the same time, Albee fiercely guarded his right to protect his own work from interpretation he felt distorted his intention. In 1984, he shut down a planned revival of Virginia Woolf by Theatre Arlington, outside Dallas, when the company announced plans to present the play with an all-male cast.
Last week, Portland producer-directorMichael Streeter claimed on Facebook that the Albee estate had ordered him to “fire the black actor and replace him with a white one.”
Rudy responded with a letter to Streeter saying he had misrepresented key facts, notably that he had never secured the license in the first place, while promoting the production, in violation of standard practice:
“[Y]ou 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,” Rudy wrote. “As such, your statement on Facebook is errant. … The decision to ‘fire’ [the actor] was yours and yours alone by virtue of your own misstep.”
The letter continued:
“[I]t 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.”
Earlier today, Tari Stratton, the Dramatist Guild’s director of education and outreach, backed the Albee estate – while promoting further discussion of the issues raised by the canceled production:
“The Guild asserts that it is a playwright’s fundamental right to approve of casting choices to ensure they reflect his or her authorial intent. We assert this right for Edward Albee and his estate, just as we have asserted it on behalf of Lloyd Suh and his work Jesus In India and Katori Hall and her play The Mountaintop. We also assert the right of playwrights to specify diverse casting for work that is not demographically specific. Playwrights own their work, and therefore have the right to make decisions about all aspects of its presentation.
At the same time, the Guild is actively engaged in conversations and initiatives aimed at making the American theater a more inclusive place with greater opportunities for all playwrights and lifting the barriers that have for far too long severely limited opportunities for far too many. We remain firm in our belief that our art form can’t achieve its full potential until it embraces our cultural and demographic diversity.”
Gregory Mosher, a Tony Award-winning producer and director with a long history of staging classics, supported the Guild position. “I think the DGA Statement is pretty good, certainly the right two issues. And I welcome its lack of hysteria or self-righteousness,” he told Deadline.
“I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play,” Streeter told The New York Times in an email. “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?
“I had hoped the negative aspects of Albee would die with him,” Streeter added. “All I did was post a very short Facebook rant about my disappointment in their decision. I think they made the wrong one. I think the benefits of casting Nick with an African-American Actor outweigh the drawbacks.”
“In the 70’s, I cast Paul Winfield as Dr. Stockmann [in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People] at the Goodman, as indeed we cast non-whites in many plays, including for the first time (I believe), A Christmas Carol. To those who thought it was weird – and there were many – I asked if they’d question Al Pacino, who’s no more Norwegian than Paul. The American theater was created by ‘outsiders’ (the despised Irish, European Jews, Southern gay men, the women writers and producers in the 40’s and 50’s) and has gradually grown more inclusive. I have a feeling Edward himself wouldn’t have had a problem with this casting. Estates are paid to protect. They usually, not always, get it right. This time, not so much.”