The Dramatists Guild of America has released an official statement regarding the recent controversy over a planned production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Portland, Oregon. The Edward Albee Estate withdrew the rights to the production—planned for the fall—upon learning that a black actor would be cast in the role of Nick, whose blond hair and blue eyes are referenced throughout the play.
Producer Michael Streeter had obtained the preliminary rights to staging Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Portland, to be confirmed after casting had been completed. He was told that should he go forward with his casting decision, the rights to the production would be withdrawn.
“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,” reads the statement from the Guild. “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 theatre 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.“
Streeter, who is also the casting director for the canceled production, told Playbill that the decision to cast a black actor as Nick was “a color conscious choice, not a colorblind [one]…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 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written,“ he said in a shared statement.
The Albee play, which premiered on Broadway in 1962 and has since had three Broadway revivals, takes place over a single night in the home of a New England professor, George, and his wife, Martha. Taking advantage of their guests—a younger couple (Nick and Honey)—for the evening, George and Martha stage an all-night battle of mind games and sexual intrigue.
“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 had 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,“ explained Streeter.
Streeter told Playbill that while he did not agree with the Albee Estate's decision to withdraw the rights, he is not going to pursue the case legally. “I do not question the motives of those that made the decision. 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,“ said Streeter.
A 2002 staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was staged with African American actor Andrea Frye as Martha. The production was during Albee's lifetime; the renowned playwright passed away at age 88 in September 2016.
Watch highlights from the 2012 Broadway production, starring Tracey Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, and Madison Dirks, below: