Edward Albee casting choice is not racist

Not everything is racist. The role of Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf should not be played by a Black actor. I agree with Edward Albee's estate. The reflexive cries of racism are misdirected.

A production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf in Oregon was told by Albee’s estate that they couldn’t have a Black actor play the role of Nick: a young professor on a small New England college in the sixties. When Edward Albee was alive he was notorious for keeping control of the vision of his plays whether he was directly involved or not. Michael Streeter; the director had already cast a Black actor so he was in the position where he’d have to fire the actor or cancel the show. He chose to cancel the show.

Mr. Streeter shared his reasons for casting the role of Nick with a Black actor on Facebook and Oregon Arts Watch:

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.

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.

Streeters 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."

In a letter to Streeter Albee’s estate wrote:

“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. "

There is a report that Albee approved the casting of a Black actress in the role of Martha in a 2002 Oregon production. In the production George and Martha were an interracial couple. He approved the casting after seeing the headshots of the actors.

Still The New York Times wrote:

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.”

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.

Did I ever tell ya the one about the Black Nazi? Why not? Because there were no Black Nazis. That isn’t to say there weren’t Black people in Nazi Germany. There were. Were there Black men who followed Hitler and persecuted the Jews? No. (There is a disturbing rabbit hole of YouTube videos you can fall into that suggests there were but this is not widely substantiated.) What does this have to do with Edward Albee? Everything.

I saw a production of an original play where a Black actor was cast as a Black Nazi. It wasn’t ironic. It wasn’t Hamilton-esque. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says he cast minority actors as the Founding Fathers because, "This is a story about America then told by America now.”

The choice to cast a Black actor as a Nazi I suppose was in an effort to “color-blind” cast and give a Black actor an opportunity he might not have had. Here’s the problem. As an audience member, when I saw the actor come dressed as a Nazi I was immediately taken out of the story. It was a distraction. For the rest of his scenes I could only focus on the absurdity of the choice.

What is it about the Nazis? (see description of Nick)

As a Black theatre maker I think non-traditional casting is an essential part of inclusion in our storytelling. If the description of the character’s skin color is not explicit I beg artistic directors, casting directors and actors to push for creating casts that reflect our diverse world.

In many cases non-traditional casting works. I was cast in The Goodman Theatre’s crowd favorite A Christmas Carol as Mrs. Cratchit. The Cratchit children were Black and White. With a mission to universalize this classic tale of redemption the choice allows the audience regardless of their skin color to see themselves on the stage. The production has had a multi-racial cast for years. In the Goodman's summer production I understudy the role of Essie; the matriarch in Ah, Wilderness a universal, joyous celebration of love and hope written by Eugene O'Neill. The cast is multi-racial as well.

It’s also worth saying that The Goodman Theatre regularly produces plays written by playwrights of color, with opportunities for minority actors, directors and designers. So it’s not an example of shoehorning minority artists into already established works because a theatre isn’t committed to producing plays by minority writers.

It never feels good to be excluded. It's uncomfortable to admit that some stories aren't inclusive. It is imperative that moving forward theatre creates opportunity for inclusion by nurturing and producing minority artists and their work.

For more about issues surrounding race listen to my podcast Race Bait "She's Black. He's White. We talk about racism so you can too!" on iTunes and podbean.

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