Edward Albee was a prominent and pioneering gay playwright whose best-known work remains his 1962 drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a scorching look at the breakdown of the marriage between two academics George and Martha which became an Oscar-winning movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
But Albee, who died last September, has gone from liberal darling to cultural pariah overnight after his estate blocked the casting of a black actor in an Oregon production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Michael Streeter, the director of a proposed revival of the play in Portland staged by The Complete Works Project, broke the news with a bitter post on 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 They have withdrawn the rights.
Streeter had wanted to cast an African-American actor in the role of Nick, one half of the younger academic couple who get sucked into George and Martha’s game. In a subsequent post he wrote: “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…I had hoped the negative aspects of Albee would die with him… I think the benefits of casting Nick with an African American Actor outweigh the drawbacks…there are valid arguments to not cast Nick as black. I believe the positives outweigh the negatives. The Albee Estate does not agree.”
The estate has hit back, defending Albee’s casting stipulation and saying the Portland production never properly had the rights for their production.
In a letter to Streeter, Sam Rudy, a spokesman for the estate, defended the decision to forego ‘colorblind’ casting: “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 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. ”
He added: “You as producer were in gross violation of standard agreements by advertising a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without having obtained the rights.”
Liberal writers and activists aren’t buying it and are venting spleen at Albee for his casting preference:
Fuck the Edward Albee estate and their disgusting racist views. Time to turn to new INCLUSIVE playwrights. Fuck that racist shit it’s 2017.
— itz Ben (@BenjaminEustac1) May 19, 2017
This isn’t in the spirit of Edward Albee himself. https://t.co/1OZFEGA1lp
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) May 19, 2017
As a writer, I want the spirit of a character embodied by an actor. Don’t care abt race. Won’t be seeing any #EdwardAlbee plays again.
— Denise Foster (@denisemfoster) May 19, 2017
Albee was known to be a stickler when it came to revivals of his work. One story even has it that for a revival of his play Three Tall Women, he had to approve the height of the women playing the roles.
And the estate of the liberal playwright agreed to black actress Sophie Okonedo starring in a revival of his 2002 play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? so it can hardly be considered a racist body.
Coincidentally there’s a telecast of the current acclaimed West End production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf being broadcast in US theaters throughout America as part of the NT Live initiative.
Will that get affected by all this?