The estate of the late playwright Edward Albee has denied a Portland producer the rights to a play, in a dispute over casting and race.
Michael Streeter, who’s independently funded and staged several productions over the years, was planning a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with The Complete Works Project.
Albee’s modern classic is a tale of two married couples in a college town: George and Martha, who are in later middle age, and much younger up-and-comers Nick and Honey. Their boozy dinner party devolves into a nightmare of anxiety and bile as deeply-buried wounds and social hostilities boil over.
Among the cast was actor Damien Geter in the role of Nick. Geter is African-American. Albee’s script indicates the character has blond hair and blue eyes.
Streeter says he intended from the beginning to undertake the show with color-conscious casting, with an eye to taking a 55-year-old play, and giving it a new vision.
“I think it adds depth to the play,” Streeter said. “The play is set in 1962, the character is ambitious, up and coming, and takes a lot of abuse in order to maintain his position. I think that’s emblematic of what was happening in the African-American community in 1962.”
Any concerns from the estate, he felt, could be worked out.
Over the weekend he submitted head shots to Albee’s licensing agent.
“They called me Monday morning. I made my argument. They made theirs as to why his should be cast with a white actor. I disagreed. The end of the conversation was we’ll allow you to have rights to the play if you cast a white actor. I refused.”
Damien Geter got the word early this week.
“I was angry,” Geter said. “Who wants to be told they can’t do a show because they’re black? This is not 1962. It’s 2017.”
Rudy says the conversation has become about the issues of non-traditional casting, “Which are important — very very important, and I support them personally.” But, he continues, “I think it’s important to remind people, particularly theater artists, that playwrights have rights. They have legal rights. To have advertised a production for which you had not received the rights, to cast it with a knowledge of how this contractually needs to take place, that’s an issue, too, for artists. And people who don’t want to adhere to [artists’ rights] are being disrespectful, are in violation, and are being unprofessional.”
Albee was outspoken during his lifetime about which roles he thought could and could not be approached with color-conscious casting. The playwright said mixed-race marriages would not have gone unacknowledged in the play’s 1962 setting, and therefore was unwilling to permit it in most cases.
But the estate’s stance, says actor Damien Geter, opens the gate on a wider problem.
“The estate — speaking factually — they can do whatever they want,” Geter said. “The bigger question is where this leaves people of color getting roles. We don’t want to play slaves and mammies our whole lives, typecast in these ways. We want to play parts like a white person would play.”
He points to the mammoth success of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” a show in which color-conscious casting was used to tremendous effect to re-imagine the story of the U.S.’s founders.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged a 2002 production in which the role of Martha was played by a black actress, Andrea Frye, with the permission of Albee’s estate. Rudy declined to comment on considerations for other productions.
While the production planned for this fall cannot go forward, Streeter says he’s working with his director and actors to stage a different show exploring questions relevant to the dispute.