The estate of late playwright Edward Albee has yanked the rights to his Tony-winning drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, reportedly after a black actor was cast in a production in Oregon.
Portland’s Complete Works Project was slated to mount the show, which chronicles a middle-aged couple’s descent into acrimony and dysfunction. But director Michael Streeter says that, after he cast an African-American to play Nick, a younger professor caught in Martha and George’s crosshairs, he received a notification from the Edward Albee Foundation telling him to recast the part with a white actor.
“I refused of course,” Streeter posted on Facebook. “They have withdrawn the rights.”
In his initial statement online, Streeter said he was “furious and dumbfounded” at the decision, and called on Albee’s estate “to join the 21st century.” He later added, “There are valid arguments to not cast Nick as black. I believe the positives outweigh the negatives. The Albee Estate does not agree.”
Albee, who died last September, was one of the premier gay playwrights of the last century. Some have even identified the 1962 play as an allegory for homosexuality—with George and Martha serving as stand-ins for a bitter gay couple. (An interpretation Albee called “bullshit.”)
Albee’s estate has a reputation for being sticklers about maintaining the integrity of his work and keeping productions it licenses to his intentions. (A production of Three Tall Women allegedly had to report the heights of the women playing the title roles.)
But according to an Stage, a 2002 production of the play featured an African-American actress, Andrea Frye, as Martha. Producers were required to send the cast’s headshots to Albee for approval, which he presumably granted.
In a statement to Streeter, a press representative for Albee’s estate, claims the issue is that the company began advertising the production in March, “before rights to produce the play had been granted.”
The rep also maintains that having Nick played by a white actor is necessary, as “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.”
Below is the full body of the memo to Streeter.
This email confirms receipt of your note on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, and also to advise you that we are, of course, aware of your post on Facebook on the same date. Also know that it has come to our attention that poster art for a production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to be presented by Michael Streeter in September was advertised in March, before rights to produce the play had been granted.
Which brings us to the matter of protocol: you 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. As such, your statement on Facebook is errant as it reads “the Albee Estate…said I need to fire the black actor and replace him with a white one.” Insofar as the Albee Estate had not approved the actor in question, you were in violation of the agreement by hiring him in the first place. The decision to ’fire’ him was yours and yours alone by virtue of your own misstep.
In a second instance of placing the cart before the horse, 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. This has been confirmed by Samuel French, the licensing agent for the play. It is upsetting that you would have such blatant disregard for the work of one of the most acclaimed playwrights of his generation, the late Edward Albee, not to mention mislead the public by promoting a production of his play before a license to produce it had been granted.
Regarding the matter of your request to cast an actor who is African-American as Nick in VIRGINIA WOOLF?, 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 WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? 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.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that you have misrepresented the Albee estate’s rightful position in this situation to the Facebook community. We are addressing your egregious actions on our end. We expect that you will publicly correct your role in this matter, also.
The office of Edward Albee