Edward Albee estate says "no" to black actor being cast as lead in 'Virginia Woolf' play

Edward Albee estate says "no" to black actor being cast as lead in 'Virginia Woolf' play
Source: AP
Source: AP

A planned production of one the most famous plays in American history is dead on arrival after an ugly racial controversy.

The estate of legendary playwright Edward Albee has denied the Portland, Oregon, based Shoe Box Theater's rights to perform Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the producers wanted to cast a black actor in a leading role.

One of the producers, Michael Streeter, broke the news on his Facebook page May 17.

"I am furious and dumbfounded," Streeter wrote. "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 They have withdrawn the rights."

Edward Albee
Source: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Virginia Woolf details the breakdown of a marriage between George, a history professor, and Martha, the daughter of his school's president. A biology professor named Nick and his wife, Honey, join George and Martha for drinks one night and witness their dysfunction first hand. 

The Shoe Box Theater planned to cast a black actor in the role of Nick. Sam Rudy, a spokesman for the Albee estate, explained the estate's opposition in a letter to Streeter, the producer, according to the New York Times.

"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," Rudy wrote. 

"Furthermore," Rudy added, "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."

On their surface, these seem like easy challenges to circumnavigate. Black actors have often been cast in stage roles that weren't written with them in mind. These include performances in plays by William Shakespeare (even aside from Othello) despite there being few black people traipsing around Elizabethan England or Ancient Greece. George Segal played Nick in the 1966 film version of the play, despite being Jewish.

Edward Albee died in September 2016, making this the first time such a casting controversy has unfolded around one his plays since his death. According to the Times, Albee maintained "tight control" over productions of his plays, even going so far as to require headshots of potential actors to be sent to him for approval.