Estate of Edward Albee Yanks Rights to Production Over Casting of Black Actor

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief

News coming out of Oregon is a bit disturbing this morning. According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of "Nick" and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show. 

The director, Michael Streeter, refused so the estate has yanked the rights to do the show. Streeter posted this news on his Facebook page. 

I've reached out to Actor's Equity for a comment and am waiting for their response. I will update this piece as it develops.

In an additional FB comment, Mr. Streeter stated: 

"There are valid arguments to not cast Nick as black. I believe the positives outweigh the negatives. The Albee Estate does not agree."

However, if this is true, then it follows consistent with what has happened in the past when producing Albee shows and the nit-picking of their casting. Albee was known for being outspoken about sticking to the playwright’s intentions. So yanking rights from a production over the race of its casting isn't completely unrealistic here. I was once told that a production of Three Tall Women had to report the actual heights of the women playing the roles. 

This is a bit unsettling however because there are many productions of this work being produced each year and one needs to look no further than Backstage to see that most auditions are calling for "all ethnicities", so is the Albee Estate going to rescind rights to all these performances? 

It should be noted however, that while the licensing description of show with Dramatist's Play Service doesn't have any mention of the races of the actors, they only handle non-professional versions of the show and the one in Oregon was professional. That opens up another issue over employment discrimination because you essentially have a black male threatened to be fired because of his race. 

We've obtained the memo sent by Sam Rudy, representing the Albee Estate, to Michael Streeter. It reads as follows: 

Dear Michael Streeter --

This email confirms receipt of your note on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, and also to advise you that we are, of course, aware of your post on Facebook on the same date.  Also know that it has come to our attention that poster art for a production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to be presented by Michael Streeter in September was advertised in March, before rights to produce the play had been granted.

Which brings us to the matter of protocol:  you were made aware on November 28, 2016 by Samuel French 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.  

In a second instance of placing the cart before the horse, you as producer were in gross violation of standard agreements by advertising a production of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? without having obtained the rights.  This has been confirmed by Samuel French, the licensing agent for the play.  It is upsetting that you would have such blatant disregard for the work of one of the most acclaimed playwrights of his generation, the late Edward Albee, not to mention mislead the public by promoting a production of his play before a license to produce it had been granted.  

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. 

Sam Rudy
Press representative
The office of Edward Albee


This morning I received an email from Michael Streeter which sheds some light on the issue over the rights and the casting of the show. It reads:

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.

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 want to clarify a few mistakes I've seen perpetuated online: first, Dramatist Play Service had nothing to do with this.  They handle the amateur rights for the play.  This was for a professional production and was handled by Samuel French.  Samuel French was very supportive and hoped that we could make it work with my cast.  It was the Albee Estate that made the decision, not Samuel French.  And many are confusing the Albee Foundation (about which I've heard many good things) with the Albee Estate.

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 have done non-traditional, diverse casting before with success.  I produced and directed Jesus Christ Superstar last summer with many females playing Apostles, including a black female playing Judas Iscariot, magnificently portrayed by Ithica Tell.  It was a smash hit with sellout crowds, critical acclaim, and winning awards.  I wanted to show that Jesus’ followers and the leaders of the early church were not necessarily included in the readily accepted version of the story. That production, with the marriage of Mary and Jesus, beautifully played by Ernie Lijoi (a gay man portraying him as a straight man), causes the audience to question the traditional Biblical story. The process to gaining the rights to that play was similar.  But Rogers and Hammerstein, the company managing the rights to the play, and Andrew Lloyd
Webber & Tim Rice, the authors, did not object to my alternative, diverse casting.

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.

So from what we can gather from statements from both parties is that the Albee Estate wanted full approval of the casting of this show. Once they saw that an African-American was cast as Nick, they requested that he be recast as a white man, when the director refuses, the shows rights are revoked. 

While the Albee Estate is using the ADVERTISING(probably casting notice) with a black actor as the reason they are stating a violation of the agreement, it's pretty clear that the reason is because of the black actor who was cast as Nick. It appears as though Mr. Albee, for at least professional productions, wants that role to remain white. 

But there is another issue to consider. 

According to those involved with a previous production, in 2002, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced the show with African-American Actress, Andrea Frye, as Martha. This production was required to send the head shots of the production to Albee office for approval. Given that the production went on, we can assume that Frye's involvement was approved. Here are two pictures from that production. 


This is where things become a bit problematic. Because if was approved Ms. Frye as Martha, because she was "lighter skinned" yet the estate disapproved of perhaps a "darker" black man as Nick, this is a serious discrimination issue. And since the production happened in 2002, and the approval steps were in place, then Mr. Albee would have been the one to approve this personally. 

Obviously this issue is not over yet and we'll keep updating as we go. But the debate of author intent vs. non-traditional casting rages on. There was a controversy over a production of In the Heights last year where a Chicago theatre cast a White-Italian Male as the lead, Dominican Usnavi. However it's important to note here that while Lin-Manuel Miranda and co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, strongly encourage these roles to be played by performers of color, they have not yanked the rights if they're not. To my knowledge they also do not ask for head-shot approval of casting either.  

So the debate rages on. 

Photo: Maggie Wilder as Honey, Danny Gavigan as Nick, Gregory Linington as George and Holly Twyford as Martha in the Ford’s Theatre production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” directed by Aaron Posner. Photo by Scott Suchman