Edward Albee Estate Refuses to Allow Black Actor in ‘Virginia Woolf’ Production

From left, George Segal as Nick, Richard Burton as George and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in the 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The work has typically been cast using white actors. (Warner Bros.)

A decision by the estate of Edward Albee not to allow a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to cast a black actor as a blond character is reigniting decades-long debates in the theater world over race, casting and authorial control.

A theater producer in Portland, Ore., said last week that Albee’s agent, representing his estate, refused to grant him the rights to present the play with a black actor, Damien Geter, playing the supporting role of Nick, a young biologist at a small New England college. The Albee office, through a spokesman, said the producer had mischaracterized the status of his application for rights to the production, but confirmed that it objected to a black actor in that role.

“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,” Sam Rudy, a spokesman for the Albee estate, said in a letter to Michael Streeter, the producer. “Furthermore, Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for nontraditional 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 1960s.”

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which won the Tony Award for best new play in 1963, is about a married couple, George and Martha, whose bitterness is bared during a boozy late-night visit from Nick and Honey, a younger couple at the same college campus. The play is a classic of American drama; it has been produced four times on Broadway, was adapted into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and is widely read and staged.

Albee, one of the nation’s leading 20th-century playwrights, was known for his tight control over professional productions of his plays, insisting on approval of casts and directors while he was alive; directors were often required to submit head shots of proposed cast members before receiving the rights to mount his plays. He died in September, and this is the first posthumous controversy over his legacy to come to light.

“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,” Mr. Streeter said in an email. He had planned a non-Equity production of the play this fall at the 35-seat Shoebox Theater in Portland. “But I had hoped the negative aspects of Albee would die with him.” He added, “I think the benefits of casting Nick with an African-American actor outweigh the drawbacks.”

Mr. Streeter set off a debate about the Albee estate’s position on casting when he posted on his Facebook page that the estate had “withdrawn the rights” for him to produce the show over his choice of a black actor as Nick. The post attracted attention, including discussion on social media, and led to numerous news articles.

After Mr. Rudy said that the rights for Mr. Streeter to present the show had never been granted, Mr. Streeter acknowledged that the situation was complicated. Both parties agreed that by November, they were discussing rights for a Portland production of “Virginia Woolf” with the understanding that the Albee estate would have to approve casting choices; last week that discussion fell apart after Mr. Streeter made clear his desire to add depth by casting a black actor as Nick.

Albee’s record on nontraditional casting is complex.

In a 2010 book, “Albee in Performance,” the playwright is quoted expressing concern about the casting of black actresses in the role of Martha, who is the daughter of the college’s president, in “Virginia Woolf.” “That would instantly raise a lot of questions, since it’s a totally naturalistic play,” he said. “Is this a black college? Do we have a black president of a white college? Not very likely.”

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Michael Paulson

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