On Creators and Audiences, pt 1

So, nearly a year after he died, irascible ol’ grumpypants Edward Albee has found himself managing to make a bunch of people mad. Or at least his estate did.

Or, well, at least the public reaction to another individual’s reaction to the actions of his estate did.

Producer Michael Streeter intended to put on a version of Albee’s most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at his 35-seat for-profit theatre, The Shoebox. The play has four characters 1, each of whom is traditionally white 2, and Streeter wanted to cast a black actor in the role of Nick. The Estate of Edward Albee who, by contract, retains approval over all casting decisions made in a commercial production of one of Albee’s plays, put the kibosh on the casting, and Streeter, in the time-honored tradition of the incensed, took to Facebook, proclaiming himself “furious and dumbfounded”.

A black Nick, you see, is something that Streeter believed would “add depth” to the show. Specifically, for these reasons:

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’.

These reasons, as stated, are not without their problems 3, but are what we have in terms of Streeter’s intent, and seem like a reasonable expression of his goals.

This is what the Albee Estate said in response:

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…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.

So Streeter wants to make a production of the play that is actually about an interracial marriage, using Albee’s words about old unhappy people to make that comment, and the Estate objects (at least on paper) not because of the blackness itself, but because of the exact thing that the producer is trying to elicit in people. To wit: the expectation that his race 4 would be able to be converted into a different thing entirely, and that this would add depth to the character rather than simply changing the character to something fundamentally different is not shared by the people that grant the rights to perform the play 5 , which, from the point of view of The People That Handle Such Things (to wit: The Dramatists Guild, as far as I can tell), is the correct position 6, or at least the position they’re willing to defend.

The response in the non-theatrical community seems to be centered mainly on the loss of an opportunity for an actor of color, which is always a concern in the theatre – there are lots of people who aren’t casting in a race-conscious way, and jobs for POC are simply not as numerous as they ought to be. The thing here, however, could very well be something a little more than that.

A theatrical performance is a collaboration – between the director (who decides how it all goes together), the writer (who provides the raw material), and the onstage/backstage people that enact the combined vision. The focus here (since it never actually got produced) will have to be on the role of the director alongside the writer. The play itself is that collaboration 7, which means that if the director is doing something that runs counter to the expressed intention of the creator (in this case that the younger character be blonde and blue-eyed), then the play is, necessarily, completely different, as stated above.  Even if one of the collaborators is a static participant – this is the case in almost every production, as very rarely is the writer on-hand, especially in the case of something that’s already been performed and published, to collaborate dynamically – it’s still a collaboration, and still has to be treated as such, with the only real option for the static participant being to remove his contributions.

Like any collaboration, there’s inevitably a trade-off. In this case, Streeter was making his point 8 via the framework of a very famous piece of work. He was attempting to leverage the recognition of the name and title into his statement about black life in 1962. The risk there is that the people handling the affairs of the writer are really only risking this one performance, and, given Albee’s own iron-handed treatment of his work 9, there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t agree and it wouldn’t happen. Especially since their stated reasons are so specifically to avoid exactly what Streeter was setting out to do.

Streeter makes it apparent that his color-conscious casting is also kind of context blind when he includes in his letter to the Albee Estate the information that he successfully race-flipped some portion of the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, which also sort of proves the point. While JCS was written in 1970 (and is, therefore, more recent than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), the actual story of Jesus was first written down in something like 70 CE 10, and has been told, at rought count, six hundred trillion times in just about as many forms since then. It’s a story that is literally a part of the fundament of much of the country’s enculturation, and, at the very least, a story with which nearly every single person in Streeter’s audience would have been familiar, which was kind of the point of Weber making it a rock opera in the first place – it’s a malleable story that is familiar enough that you can do an awful lot with it before it bends out of shape.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is, and I hope I don’t ruffle too many feathers, neither as old, as well-known or as common as the story of Jesus, and it relies a bit more on the specific makeup of its cast 11, so it’s significantly less resistant to that kind of bending. 

Editorially (and as above), it’s absolutely the case that this decision could very well have come from a place that also denies black actors work in the theater. But there’s no denying that choosing a different goddamn play would have denied even fewer of them. Not to mention potentially some non-white playwrights, some non-dead playwrights, some non-already-rich playwrights, and a host of other people that could’ve benefited from finding, say, something that was more in-line with what you were trying to say about the black experience in 1962.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that I would have followed the same course of action as the Albee Estate myself. I would probably have come down on the side of letting the dude do his dumb thing and letting it exist for the world to see it, and let the dude that made it live with his notion that “slim-hipped” is going to be provocative, and that his audience is a set of people who he’s presuming are there expecting racial slurs. But it’s not up to me (I’m not Edward Albee, y’all!).

It is, actually, up to anyone else that makes a play. That’s how these things shake out. If the idea that the current handlers for Edward Albee’s work don’t want Nick to be black is something that takes you out of your ability to like Edward Albee’s work, then it’s time to stop putting on Edward Albee’s work. If enough people agree, that’ll be that. That said, it’s probably important to acknowledge that arguing that a playwright shouldn’t be allowed to exert any control over the production and presentation of his work 12 is kind of a terrible one, even if, in this case, it is kind of hard to swallow the putative reasons given.

Regardless of where one stands in the argument here, given that the authoritative body in charge sides with Albee, you’re pretty much left with the option to just…not perform the plays. It’s true that you won’t get the advantages of performing the play that people have heard of and getting the publicity you wanted for that in the first place, but it’s also true that, should your message be one that’s important, you can find the play that suits your needs and/or desires.

And, hey, if you want your audience to constantly worry that you’re going to use racial slurs in the dialogue, I bet you could figure that out, too. Although it probably won’t be tonight’s show at The Shoebox, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), which is definitely a wonderful monologue show that will provoke thought in the audience, and which, frankly, is probably better in 2017 than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

  1.  George, Martha, Nick and Honey. George is an academic whose career is heading toward the coast pretty quickly, while Nick’s wave at the university at which they work is rising. Martha is an old housewife, Honey a young housewife. George and Martha do not get along particularly well, and NIck and Honey (spoiler alert) also have problems. Or, well, at least one problem, such as it is. 
  2.  although in at least one instance – a 2002 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – Martha was played by a black woman. 
  3.  leaving aside the thing about hips, there’s still the fact that if you’re putting on a play and are, at any point, expecting the audience to have to ask each other about the upcoming racial slurs (which are not, in fact, there, or at least not without making script changes that would almost certainly not land him in cooler water with the Albee folks), then you are saying more about you than your audience. 
  4.  a matter of literal, actual text – his physical, blonde/blue-eyed, white, attributes are mentioned specifically and directly 
  5.  there is also some kerfuffle, which is well beyond my inclination to tease out, over the advertisement of the production before the license was granted (Streeter says it was a casting poster that got mistaken for a show-advertising poster, I see no reason not to believe him), as well as, as Streeter points out, some weirdness regarding it being Streeter’s fault for casting the show without permission to perform it, even though in order to get the license you have to submit the cast, which, presumably, means you have to cast the show in order get the license, which you can’t have until you cast the show. 
  6.  for his part, Streeter doesn’t seem apt to pursue retaliation, or arbitration, or court uh..itation, instead announcing that he was looking for another play to perform and moving on. 
  7.  or, if you want to harrow it even more finely, the play itself is the outward result of that collaboration, but the collaboration is the engine that runs the whole thing. 
  8.  which again, according to him, includes that invective spewed at a black person is going to turn into racial slurs and something about white women’s bodies vs. black women’s bodies vis a vis their hips, because that is also, apparently, important to Streeter 
  9.  the rule that the cast must be approved before the production can go on didn’t start with his estate, after all, and he shut people down on those grounds from coast to coast. 
  10.  the biblical gospels are not precisely-dated, so it could have been as early as 40 CE and as late as 150 CE. 
  11.  let’s also remember that even though everybody in JCS on the West End (although not in the movie!) was white , nobody in the actual Jesus story was. 
  12.  this argument is made two ways, once by wondering how it is that he even needed to ask permission, and again by ignoring the substance of the objection in favor of shouting down the idea of not wanting a black actor in a role. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s