The decision of Edward Albees estate to deny production rights over the casting choice of a black actor has reignited a debate over theaters relationship with race
Last week, a casting director in Portland, Oregon, posted a Facebook message saying the Edward Albee estate had denied him the rights to Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? upon learning that he intended to cast a black actor in the role of Nick.
The estates decision echoes similar actions by the estates of Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams to deny rights when a proposed cast member did not match the race or gender that the playwright had originally delineated. Even the rights holders of fluffier stuff, such as Grease, have made similar refusals.
At a time when, for example, the Broadway lineup offers a Hispanic founding father, a black Russian countess, racially diverse rogues in Chicago and the occasional black Phantom, are we moving toward an era in which the actions of the Albee estate will seem retrograde? Yes. But just like the subways rumbling under 42nd street, progress is pretty slow.
Part of the difficulty has to do with whether we perceive theater as a collaborative form in which a play is made new each time a director and actors put it on, or whether plays exist as blueprints for a single ideal staging that each production will realize to greater and lesser extent.
If its the latter, then the estates decision makes a lot of sense. Albee was a fervently precise writer and likely would not have conceded the frequent references to Nicks blondness as negotiable. During his lifetime he denied rights to productions that wanted to alter the gender and even the age of the characters as hed written them. (Then again, Albee was not wholly doctrinaire: he approved the casting of an African American woman as Martha in an Oregon Shakespeare festival production and allowed non-traditional casting in several other plays.)
But if its the former then perhaps we can hope for a theater that respects the integrity of both new and classic plays while also using them to reflect on urgent contemporary questions of race, gender and sexuality, as in Phyllida Lloyds all-female Shakespeare productions. And sometimes even these questions might yield to the excitement of thrilling actors taking on roles written for characters with dissimilar bodies, ethnicities and cultural identities. When Oscar Isaac plays Hamlet this summer, its difficult to imagine Shakespeare tsk-ing in his grave.
Yet for the most part, Broadway hasnt taken this hint, despite the colossal success of Hamilton. Shows that adopt Hamiltons hip-hop pastiche style will take years to build, but producers could have instantly embraced its color-conscious casting and its assurance that audiences will happily watch non-celebrity actors of color if theyre performing exhilarating work.