A small professional theatre company in Portland, Oregon, set off an intense debate last spring when a black actor was cast as Nick in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Albee estate, which retains casting and creative approval for professional productions of the playwright’s work, informed the production’s director that rights to the play would not be granted unless the role was recast with a white actor. The director refused, and the rights were ultimately withheld.
However, a recent Chicago production of the play, featuring black actors as George and Martha opposite white actors as Nick and Honey, had been approved by the estate, according to a report by Howard Sherman of Arts Integrity.
In addition, Albee’s executors provided the Chicago theatre with edits Albee himself made to the script for an all-black student production of the play at Howard University in 2001.
A letter obtained from publicist Sam Rudy, spokesman for the Albee estate, shed light on Albee’s complex stipulations for how his plays were to be cast. In essence, Albee felt that changing the race of a particular character could impose a narrative onto the play that he did not intend.
Michael Streeter, the director of the Oregon production, said that casting a black actor as Nick (whose blue eyes and blond hair are referenced throughout the script) would bring new depth to Albee’s 1962 drama about a marriage being ripped apart at the seams.
“I had hoped the negative aspects of Albee would die with him,” Streeter said in an interview regarding his abandoned production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Jonathan Lomma, Albee’s former agent who now oversees the playwright’s estate, provided a statement that clarified why the Oregon production had been denied.
“While it has been established that non-Caucasian actors in different combinations have played all the roles in the play at various times with Edward’s approval, he was consistently wary of directors attempting to use his work to provide their own commentary by, for instance, casting only Nick as non-white, which essentially transforms George and Martha into older white racists, which is not what Edward’s play is about,” he wrote.
Lomma pointed out that casting a black actor as Nick opposite a white actor as George—in a play set on a New England college campus in the early 1960s—would introduce a racist subtext during one of George’s second act monologues which is directed at Nick. The argument is then that Albee’s play was not written to address or accommodate this crucial issue, and the dynamic would profoundly change how the play (and George) are perceived.
Vera Katz, who directed the all-black student production of ...Virginia Woolf? at Howard University, said she sent a letter to Albee requesting two specific changes to the play to accommodate the cast. These included altering George and Martha’s references to a “blond blue-eyed child,” as well as the names of the universities where George has taught.
Katz says that she was surprised when Albee phoned her to discuss the changes, suggesting “the dark dusky child” to replace “the blond blue-eyed child,” and changing the university names to those of historically black colleges such as Howard, Fisk, and others. Katz said that Albee also visited Howard to meet with the students during rehearsals.
Lomma said that neither Albee nor the estate’s executors were against racially diverse productions of the playwright’s work, pointing out two other sanctioned productions of ...Virginia Woolf? that featured black actors as Martha in an otherwise all-white cast. In addition, the recent London premiere of Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia featured Sophie Okonedo and Damian Lewis. “Virtually all of the roles can and should be done in a diverse, color-conscious fashion,” he said.
While past productions shed light on the playwright and his estate's awareness of representation, the Portland dispute—and myriad similar instances—prove the need for continued conversation across the board. Even the Dramatists Guild of America, which asserted that it was a playwright’s fundamental right to approve casting choices that could effect authorial intent, added that it remained “firm in our belief that our art form can’t achieve its full potential until it embraces our cultural and demographic diversity.”