Earlier today a casting director named Michael Streeter wrote in a Facebook post that the Edward F. Albee Foundation allegedly tried to force him to fire a black actor and replace him with a white actor.
Streeter’s work as a casting director on the production of Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? appears to have been set for a September run at the Shoebox Theater in Portland, Oregon, according to audition listings posted to Facebook and Backstage. Streeter also lists that he his looking specifically for an “African American, Ethnically Ambiguous / Mixed Race” man for the role of Nick.
In a lengthy memo forwarded to Jezebel and originally sent to Michael Streeter by Press Representative Sam Rudy, the Edward Albee Estate, not the Edward F. Albee Foundation, writes that Streeter was in “gross violation of standard agreements” by advertising the production without first securing the rights. This is because the Albee Estate had not approved his casting, which is their standard protocol for all roles in the play. “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,” reads the memo. “The decision to ‘fire’ him was yours and yours alone by virtue of your own misstep.”
The memo also addresses the choice of race when it comes to casting the role of Nick:
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.
Colorblind casting in theater is not new but has become more common in recent years, especially after the rise of Hamilton and Hermione being played by black actress Noma Dumezweni in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But when it comes to a playwright’s original intentions, estates can sometimes be extremely protective regarding changes—with exceptions. Arthur Miller’s estate, for example, allows for all-black casts of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
As for casting Nick, the character was originated on stage first by actor George Grizzard and has been played exclusively on Broadway by white actors like George Segal, David Harbour, Madison Dirks, and Bill Berger. In a touring production in 2007, Nick was played by David Furr who was actually a brunette, though in photos from the time it appears that he bleached his hair to blonde.
Jezebel has reached out to Streeter for comment and will update this post if he responds.
Update (May 19, 10:00 a.m. EDT): In an email to Jezebel, Streeter, who clarified his role as casting director and producer of the production, explained his choice to cast 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 it 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.
Streeter also wrote that Samuel French had “placed the rights on hold in November” for the production, which meant that no one else in Portland could apply for the same rights until the process was complete.
“The Edward Albee estate requires a venue be in place and the show be cast before they will grant the rights,” he continued. “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.”
The memo from the public relations firm (which I think says a lot, the fact that they had to hire a public relations firm for this) attempts to deflect and blame me. I noted the catch 22 situation regarding casting above. The memo is also mistaken in that there has been at least one past production with a black cast member and interracial couple as characters. This was in 2002 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which was during Albee’s lifetime and presumably with his approval. It is, also, mistaken in stating that the poster I created was promoting the show. The poster I made was part of the audition announcement and designed to draw attention to the auditions as well as provide production information, a requirement for audition boards. Yes, I would have adapted it and used it as a foundation for promotional posters had the project moved forward. But it didn’t.
“I do not question the motives of those that made the decision,” he writes later in the email. “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 [sic] outweigh the drawbacks.”
Update (May 19, 5:45 p.m. EDT): Sam Rudy, the publicist Streeter referred to, emailed Jezebel to clarify that his working relationship with Edward Albee began when he met the playwright in 1980. He was not hired to deal with the fallout of this production.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the writer Henry Miller as the playwright of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman. The playwright is Arthur Miller. Jezebel regrets the error.
Clarification: The memo sent to Streeter is from the Edward Albee Estate, not the Edward Albee Foundation. The two are separate organizations.