In 2017, Casting A Black Actor Derailed A Staging Of This Famous Play

“I am furious and dumbfounded,” Oregon-based theater producer Michael Streeter wrote on Facebook last week. “The Edward Albee Estate needs to join the 21st Century.”

The short statement ― totaling just over 50 words ― claimed that the estate of the late Pulitzer-winning playwright had withdrawn the rights to his play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” disallowing Streeter from staging the well-known production in Portland. Its reason, according to the post? Streeter had cast a black actor in the supporting role of Nick.

“The Albee Estate called and said I need to fire the black actor and replace him with a white one,” he added. “I refused, of course.”

According to The New York Times, a spokesperson for the Albee estate maintains that it hadn’t exactly withdrawn Streeter’s permission to stage the play ― namely because it hadn’t provided explicit permission to begin with. But the spokesperson did confirm the crux of Streeter’s statement: It indeed objected to the casting of a black actor in the play.

“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,” spokesperson Sam Rudy allegedly wrote in a letter to Streeter. “Furthermore, Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for nontraditional 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 1960s.”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” a widely adapted play, centers on husband-and-wife duo George and Martha, whose lack of marital bliss becomes the central conflict of a night of drinking with a younger couple, Nick and Honey. Written in 1962, Albee ― known to demand creative control over various productions of his play ― originally conceived the characters as white, including, as Rudy pointed out, a description of Nick that involves the word “blond.”

Streeter, in a subsequent Facebook post, explained his “color-conscious” casting choice further:

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?’ There are lines that I think this casting gives resonance to, such as the fact that his (white) wife has ‘slim hips’ and when he says he’s ‘nobody’s houseboy’. 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 or fantasy for an African American biologist in 1962 for the distant future. 

He went on to say that he does “not question the motives of those that made the decision” on behalf of the estate, adding that he believes “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,” he concluded. “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.”

I had hoped the negative aspects of Albee would die with him.

Streeter also acknowledged that the estate had not yet granted him full rights to stage the play at Shoebox Theater, in a production originally scheduled for this fall; rather, his ability to move forward rested on receiving casting approval from the estate. 

The Times noted that Albee had previously issued concern regarding the potential casting of a black actress as Martha, the daughter of a college president: “That would instantly raise a lot of questions, since it’s a totally naturalistic play,” he said. “Is this a black college? Do we have a black president of a white college? Not very likely.” According to The Guardian, Albee also took action in order to halt a version of the play with two gay couples.

The estate’s refusal to grant rights to Streeter has reinvigorated conversations about colorblind and color-conscious casting in theater ― the latter technique being one that was famously employed by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production of “Hamilton.” Several theater fans even remarked on seeing “Virginia Woolf” with actors of color before.

Streeter himself wondered whether or not the casting of an interracial couple in particular was the sole reason for the estate refusing to grant rights. “I think if I had proposed an all black cast they may have been more open to approving it,” he wrote. Still, the estate’s reasoning fell flat for many.

“The reasoning, if that’s quite the word, of the Albee estate doesn’t seem to be simple racism,” Scott Simon explained on NPR. “It sounds like convoluted racism.”

“This is terrible,” journalist Mark Harris wrote on Twitter. “I don’t know if this reflects Albee’s wish. If it does, that wish should not have survived him.”

The husband of the actress originally cast as Martha in Streeter’s production took to Facebook to post his reaction, too:

“While we are Whitewashing our movies and pop culture on a daily basis (Emma Stone as Native Hawaiian in ‘Aloha,’ Zach McGowan as a native Hawaiian, David Carradine as a Chinese man in ‘Kung Fu’?! and how about JESUS CHRIST as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white guy?!?!) we have a responsibility to #Resist these weak excuses for allowing racism to exist.”

HuffPost has reached out to Streeter and the Edward Albee Foundation for comment and will update this post accordingly if and when we hear back.

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