DASHED HOPES, GOOD INTENTIONS: The 'Virginia Woolf' Casting Issue
A lot has been written about the estate of Edward Albee, especially in the last few weeks. Some in thoughtful articles like Diep Tran's take in American Theater Magazine and commentary like Scott Simon's take on NPR. But the written piece that instigated all of it was actually a facebook status by director Michael Streeter in Portland, Oregon. In it he writes:
"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 withheld the rights."
If you are at all involved in American theater and happen to also be on social media, this might not be a new topic. However, it is a complicated one. While this is just one instance and one theater, it triggered a strong reaction in our industry for quite a few reasons. So we reached out to a few artists in the Chicago community for their varied reactions.
"People assume if race isn't mentioned than the character must be white; that's because people are used to only seeing people of color onstage when their oppression is the topic of discussion. (I've had plays where people ask "Why is it important for him/her to be a person of color", and when I respond with "they were the best actor for the role", I get confused stares and replies like "I was waiting for their race to be mentioned." People are weird.)
I'm done with pretending like VW is a play about race. It's not.
It's about marriage and family and longevity and the future.
If Elizabeth Taylor can get slathered in age makeup and a wig and George Segal (a Jewish actor without Aryan features, as the estate pretends to insist is an important part of the character) can play Nick, the role in question, then what is this fight about? The role of Nick has gone to actors who are short and overweight and with dark hair, which is very much against the script. The only thing that was different? They were white, so it was forgiven.
If white actors are allowed to be forgiven for not being physically in line with one exchange in a 3.5 hour show, then an actor of color should not be denied the role purely because of the color of his skin. These are not historical characters. They are works of fiction in a play which traffics in the absurd and the theatrical. Albee never put racial breakdowns into Woolf, presumably assuming the show would only be played by white people.
This is 2017.
The amount of theatrical professionals going out of their way to protect whiteness in a show void of race is not only creepy, it's a horrible look for our art form. This play is old enough to have grandchildren in college, why are we fighting so hard to keep people of color out of it? (Many of those screaming the loudest run, give financial support and operate inside of theaters who never do works by people of color; onstage or off, they seem to resist any kind of diversity.) I'm not surprised that they're suddenly professionals at writers rights; these same people who will cut out the use of the word "Nigger" in Glass Menagerie because it makes them uncomfortable and produce all white "West Side Story" productions.
If we're going to "Resist", we need to make sure that even our smallest theater's are not denying people opportunities because of the color of our skin. That is still bigotry. That is still an act of silencing. That is still wrong.
Albee was one of the best playwrights living, but this devotion to "Making Theater Great Again" by insisting on a purified version of a living text is ridiculous.
- Ike Holter, Playwright
Michael Streeter is a White man. He can only imagine the strife and “abuse” a Black man in 1962 would experience. It is not the equivalent of what a White man would experience as an “up and comer” in academia. It’s particularly disturbing that Streeter wants to engage in a game of “will they/won’t they” in relation to whether George and Martha will “go there” with racial slurs. I am a Black actress. I can tell you I am not interested in that game. I question whether Streeter shared that vision with the actor before casting him and asked whether the actor was comfortable holding that tension. I'd feel like the target in one of those shooting games at a carnival. And the choice that Nick; a biologist would have the goal or fantasy to make everyone the same is based in the presumptive belief that Black people want to neutralize or be the same.
The fact that Streeter attempted to address elements of the script that bump up against race confirms that he did due dilligence. Good for him. But I wonder if he sought feedback from any people of color before he made his decisions.
Streeter's choice injects race into the world of the play but in order to truly address race there would need to be additional dialogue, dramaturgy etc. Without that work race detracts from the original intention of the script. As my dear friend and mentor the late Russ Tutterow used to say when people's feedback on original work would turn prescriptive, "Well, maybe you should write that play."
New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood describes the 2012 Broadway revival as “ A play, which depicts an endless night of boozy revels and bitchy acrimony taking place in the disorderly living room of a history professor and his wife, Martha, who have invited another, younger couple over to join in the blood sport.” The piece is not about a dysfunctional couple who is also possibly racist. It’s not about a Black man trying to make it in academia either.Mr. Streeter's casting of a Black actor within the time period, on a small campus with two predatory characters cannot happen unless the Black actor’s skin color is ignored, overlooked and ultimately sacrificed for the story. Theatre is not the place where minority actors need to be sacrificed. It’s been done.
Theatre cannot simply sew minority actors into the fabric of American theatre by having them be surrogates. By the Albee estate taking a stand and wrestling back Albee’s original intent it unintentionally forces the fact that the Black actor deserves an opportunity to tell a story that doesn’t ask observers to ignore his entirety.
- Tania Richard, Actress/Writer
*for more of Tania's thoughts, you can read her blog here
I am not well-versed in the work of Edward Albee and if I wasn't forced to read him in school I wouldn't have read him at all. I am a voracious reader of all theatre, but to me it has always been clear that he was a white man who could never imagine me in his world. He has previously talked about concerns over casting Martha in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF because he cannot imagine that black people could be the president of a college (as her father would be in the context of the play).
The theatre is a world that is supposed to facilitate imagination. Casting people as something they are very clearly not, especially in a classical context can be extremely powerful commentary on the time. I recall an excellent CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at African American Shakespeare Company for example with an all black cast and no changes made to the text. It would have been very unlikely for a black man to have that kind of wealth and own a plantation etc etc but nobody contested it and it created an opportunity to examine social dynamics of the past in a new modern way.
At the end of the day we are just seeing the same close minded behaviors from the estate as Albee himself when he was living - behaviors the industry let slide because of his fame and power. It is disappointing but not surprising that his exclusionary attitude towards black performers and his erasure of black People in the academic field would be upheld. After all, the Estate's job is just to follow the writer's wishes and unfortunately they were spot on. Albee had a limited imagination when it came to the contexts in which he thought black People should be allowed to exist, but it is a shame that the Estate would choose to enforce this racist mindset instead of allowing a casting choice that would broaden the audience's perspective.
- Regina Victor, Artist/Activist
What makes a play a classic?
Looking at a list of the 100 Greatest Plays Ever written by Michael Billintons in 2015, the majority of the plays are written by white men. Surprising? No. Even on the website, all of the pictures chosen are of white actors.
In a societal structure that is made to support one race and gender, it is no wonder that the amount of classics on this list, within our lifetime, were written by white men. I’m not saying that these playwrights aren’t intelligent or great writers, but the majority of them are white men. So, looking at this list, you had a pretty good shot of getting on it if you are or were a white man who had written a Broadway show.
If a play is well written, but only speaks to the white audience members or the white artists working on it, is it really a classic? Classics are universal. Anyone who sees a classic play should be able to identify with at least one of the characters and the situations presented in the show. If a play doesn’t do that, can it be called a classic?
What happened between The Shoebox Theater in Portland and the Albee Estate wasn’t a surprise. Even though Albee okayed a production’s choice to have actress Andrea Frye play Martha in 2002, the estate just couldn’t let Nick be played by an actor who isn’t white. In his article, “Why A Theater Director Made A 'Color-Conscious Choice' In 'Virginia Woolf' Casting”, Jeff Lunden of NPR wrote, “Many plays in the American canon are very specific about time and place, which can limit opportunities for actors of color.” This is the problem that a lot of director’s run into when choosing a show. “Well, I want to direct this play, but it is set in this time period, so I want to casting to reflect the time period, but I want it to be an inclusive cast…” but but but but but. The buts are keeping older plays from moving out of the All White territory. If you want to have representation on stage, then you have to find the plays that let you do that. You can’t force a layer onto a story if the play isn’t going to support it. If a play does support it, then free yourself of the buts and dive into the play!
Do we really need to see another white man play Lady Bracknell? Or another all white cast of a Wilde play? Why can’t an actor of a different race defend his love for a goat in Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia? A black woman (or female identifying actress) playing Joan of Arc has the potential to be an incredible production and can lift Shaw’s play to unknown heights. Why isn’t that happening now?
I only have questions after what happened with The Shoebox Theater and The Albee Estate.
Should white directors stop trying to shove an actor of a different race into these white plays?
If these plays can’t support having an actor/actresses of different cultural backgrounds, should they be considered classics? Should they instead be called historic?
When these plays end up on a “greatest plays”list, should an asterisk follow them?
Who’s Afraid of Viginia Woolf?*
*A Classic White Play
- Jeff Trainor, Actor
Playwrights enjoy a certain right of primacy over their work, which was hard-won by individuals and guilds, and I'm always going to lean towards respecting that. I do believe that theatrical work must remain collaborative in order for it to be vital, but collaboration is a word open to interpretation and personal agenda.
You have directors who believe that the playwright's job is finished once the script enters rehearsal, and that the production team now has carte blanche to insist on their own alterations to lines, scene order, and other details without consulting the playwright at all. You also have playwrights who believe that their script enters the theater in pristine, unassailable condition.
In a situation when the playwright is still alive, or when the playwright's wishes for their work remain under the power of those who the playwright trusted, there must always be a conversation. "Playwright intent" is a term spoken with great distaste in cases like this, when a director seems to be denied an interpretation of a text that provides greater equality to our art. But I also believe in how this principle protects us from abuses of a director who seeks to do harm or deliberately misinterpret the message; and I believe that a principle must have consistency to not be prejudice.
But the privilege of primacy includes the freedom to be incorrect about what is best for your work. I think that both Albee and his estate denied themselves an opportunity to explore and discover something new about a play that increasingly needs to affirm why it holds any relevance for a modern audience. The estate should ask itself what we can still learn from a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in this day and age if it is still performed exactly the way it was first envisioned. And the producers should ask themselves if this play was programmed because of the urgency of its story and characters, or simply because of the marketability of its reputation.
The ultimate result of the hard line that Albee's estate has drawn is that the play loses value and gradually fades into antiquity, but then so be it. Not every work of art need be timeless to have been good, and not every good work of art needs to be salvaged from the circumstances that birthed it.
- Bilal Dardai, Writer/Performer