Who’s afraid of a vigorous argument: Edward Albee estate vs. producer Michael Streeter
Portland theatrical producer Michael Streeter had planned to cast a black actor in his production of the late Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The estate of the playwright objected. And despite a furious argument about what happened, nobody threw rocks or called each other names. The result actually made us all a bit smarter.
Let’s take a look at the statements of all parties involved.
Michael Streeter started with a rant on Facebook
The first the world heard of this is when Michael Streeter, an independent theater producer in Portland, posted this 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 They have withdrawn the rights.
These are simple statements of fact, except for the remark about the Albee estate being stuck in the wrong century.
The Albee Estate’s Sam Rudy responded
Here’s some of what Sam Rudy, press representative for the Albee Estate, wrote back in an email:
. . . you were made aware on November 28, 2016 by Samuel French [who was arranging the rights to put on the play] 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.
So the Albee estate disputes Streeter’s account of the facts. The email also includes this:
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.
Clearly Rudy is upset that Streeter called him out publicly. The use of weasel words like “numerous,” “egregious,” and “great care” reflects an attempt to make the response sound more forceful. But the email is direct, using “we” and “you” as a direct communication should.
Michael Streeter then defended his position
Since the Rudy email also appeared in press accounts, Streeter defended himself on Facebook. Here are some excerpts:
Here are my thoughts on casting Nick with a black actor: 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. The play is filled with invective from Martha and particularly George towards Nick. With each insult that happens in the play, the audience will wonder, ‘Are George and Martha going to go there re. racial slurs?’ There are lines that I think this casting gives resonance to, such as the fact that his (white) wife has ‘slim hips’ and when he says he’s ‘nobody’s houseboy’. He is a biologist and it is suggested that he is looking to make everyone the same. (Nazism and Arianism is implied, but never specifically mentioned.) This could be a reasonable goal or fantasy for an African American biologist in 1962 for the distant future. 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. So there you are. I am an actor and a director. My vision always plays out better onstage than in my ability to articulate it.
Samuel French had placed the rights on hold in November while I pursued completion, meaning no one else was able to apply for the rights in Portland until the process was done. The Edward Albee estate requires a venue be in place and the show be cast before they will grant the rights. In the process, I cast the show. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to present the Albee Estate with the cast of the show unless I’ve cast it. To be clear, at the end of the phone conversation I had with the Albee Estate earlier this week I was told in no uncertain terms, if I went forward with the show as cast I would not be granted the rights, if I recast the part of Nick with a white actor I would be granted the rights.
I have done non-traditional, diverse casting before with success. I produced and directed Jesus Christ Superstar last summer with mostly females playing Apostles, including a black female playing Judas Iscariot, magnificently portrayed by Ithica M. Tell. It was a smash hit with sellout crowds, critical acclaim, and winning awards. . . .
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. I do not question their right to make the decision. If I did, I would pursue it legally. All I did was post a very short Facebook rant about my disappointment in their decision. I think they made the wrong one. I think the benefits of casting Nick with an African American Actor outweigh the drawbacks.
When people argue civilly, we all learn something
I don’t know who’s in the right here, but I’m smarter than I was before I read all this.
I hadn’t realized that the playwright has to approve productions like this, and I was surprised to learn that Edward Albee (or his estate) was so insistent on this level of control. But as a writer whose work has been misquoted and badly translated in some cases, I understand how the Albee side feels about it.
I also now understand more about what directors hope to accomplish with non-traditional casting choices. While Streeter says he is a better theater producer than explainer, my opinion as a frequent theater patron is that he explained himself pretty well.
The back and forth also explains the logistical problems. The producer has to get a venue, cast the play, and only then get approval to go forward. It certainly doesn’t appear that Streeter could have done this any differently — except for perhaps showing a little more restraint in his original Facebook remarks.
But it’s clear that despite some rancor, there is respect on both sides. Both have expressed themselves clearly and respectfully. And we’re all a little better informed now.
The people arguing about the future of our politics could certainly learn something from this.
It’s extraordinary that an experienced actor/producer has made such a blunder. He should know how protective writers and other artists are over their work. Where a play like WAoVW makes overt references to Aryanism, blond hair and implies Nazi sympathies, it’s patronizing to cast a black actor in the role. Rewriting the script to accommodate a lead actor of colour is the tail wagging the dog. The producer owes the actor he cast as Nick a big, fat apology.
I recently saw the last production of the play Albee actually approved before his death.
Your readers shouldn’t jump to the conclusion from the exchange of emails that Albee was a racist.
He believed this particular play works only as a “period piece,” because married couples after the 1960s fundamentally changed their behaviors toward one another (for the better). An “updated” version wouldn’t pass a credibility test among audiences.
Anachronistic productions have a place; but so do playwrights’ desires. Especially when they are aesthetically grounded, as is Albee’s.