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It is unlikely that many people in the theatre are unaware of the controversy that arose in mid-May, when a small Portland, Oregon theatre company proposed a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a black actor in the role of Nick. Outcry built swiftly after Michael Streeter of the Shoebox Theatre posted the following message to Facebook:

“I am furious and dumbfounded. 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 withheld the rights.”

This touched off a tidal wave of conversation, debate and anger over the actions of the Albee estate, with many decrying the late playwright, who had been well known to exert significant control over all productions of his plays during his lifetime, as racist. That charge was leveled at the representatives of the estate as well, since they were sustaining what were understood to be Albee’s wishes.

So it was rather surprising when, just a couple of weeks ago, the Pulse Theatre Chicago opened their own production of Virginia Woolf, with black actors as George and Martha and white actors as Nick and Honey. This seemed to contradict the prevailing takeaway from the Shoebox controversy.

Upon learning of the production via a review by Kerry Reid in The Chicago Tribune, Arts Integrity contacted Sam Rudy, the spokesman for the Albee estate, to ask about how this production had been allowed to go forward when the Shoebox production had not been able to, unless they had recast with a white actor as Nick.

In response, Rudy shared a statement from Jonathan Lomma of WME, Albee’s agent and now agent for the estate. It read:

“Regarding your inquiry, the Albee Estate gave Chicago’s Pulse Theatre Edward’s own script edits that the playwright thought could be useful when George and Martha are portrayed by actors of color, as they are in the current Chicago production.

Those approved edits by Edward himself were used in an all African-American production of Woolf at Howard University several years ago.

While it has been established that non-Caucasian actors in different combinations have played all the roles in the play at various times with Edward’s approval, he was consistently wary of directors attempting to use his work to provide their own commentary by, for instance, casting only Nick as non-white, which essentially transforms George and Martha into older white racists, which is not what Edward’s play is about.”

The edits suggested  by Albee primarily consist of a word or short phrase, 13 in all, mostly adjusting references to hair and eye color. The most significant change is a brief section in the Act 2 “begin and water” monologue.

In conversation, Lomma drew attention to a particular speech of George’s, which Albee felt was completely transformed, in a profoundly negative way, were it to be spoken by an older white man to a younger black man:

“All imbalances will be corrected, sifted out…  We will have a race of men…test-tube bred…incubator born…superb and sublime…  Everyone will tend to be rather the same…  Alike.  Everyone…and I’m sure I’m not wrong here…will tend to look like this young man here… I suspect we will not have much music, much painting, but we will have a civilization of men, smooth, blond and right at the light-heavyweight limit…  diversity will no longer be the goal.  Cultures and races will eventually vanish…the ants will take over the world….  And I am, naturally, rather opposed to all this.”

The Zachary Scott Theatre Center production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The Howard University Virginia Woolf

As Lomma noted, there had been productions of Virginia Woolf cast with black actors during Albee’s lifetime. When the Shoebox controversy arose, many people pointed to a production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2002 in which Andrea Frye, a black actress, played Martha with white actors in the others role. Less noted was a 2003 production at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center in Austin, again with a black actress, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, as Martha in an otherwise white ensemble.

While in May the estate was not able to provide much detail about these productions, a college production at Howard University, while mentioned in passing at the time and cited in Lomma’s statement, is evidence that Albee was not doctrinaire about race in the play.

Vera Katz, the first white theatre professor at the historically black Howard University, planned a production of Virginia Woolf as her final show before retiring in 2001. She reached out to Albee and he visited the show while it was in rehearsals, and offered suggested changes to the text that would make minor changes appropriate for an all-black production.

In June of this year, Michon Boston wrote on her Eclectique 916 site about the Howard University production, which she said was the first time she had seen the play staged. She reached out to Vera Katz to ask about Katz’s experience of producing the play, given the controversy that had just flared.

She received the following response from Katz, which Boston said Katz specifically asked her to share:

“My delay to responding to this debate is because my husband is critically ill.

In 2001, I had the audacity to contact Mr. Albee by writing him a letter in long hand and sending it through his agent. What I asked Mr. Albee in the letter was to adjust two specific changes to his play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” for a performance by an African American student cast at Howard University.

These changes were:
1) The mysterious baby we never see referred to as a “blond blue-eyed child”;
2) The university names in which George has lectured and taught.

My husband said “You’ll never hear from him.”

To my surprise, Edward Albee responded by calling me. He immediately agreed to discuss the changes asking me to get my script and reviewed them with me over the phone. The “blue-eyed” child became “the dark dusky child”, and the university names became HBCUs – Howard, Fisk, Wilberforce, etc.

Mr. Albee expressed his desire to visit Howard and talk with the young actors. When he arrived he insisted on shaking every actor’s hand and gave a brilliant lecture about the play.

He was extremely interested in a tour of the campus. During the tour he was very knowledgeable of persons the dormitories and buildings were named for — Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Charles Drew, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Ira Aldridge. For me, he seemed to want to expand his awareness of the Black experience during this visit.

Albee stood for a long time in front of a portrait of Ira Aldridge (actor). He talked about the importance of Ira Aldridge to the theater.

Mr. Albee said he was unable to attend the performance of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” because his play “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?” was in production.

We thanked him by mentioning his visit in the program at Howard and sent him a copy (of the program).

Boston concluded her post by noting that Katz was working on a book in which she would go into more detail about her interactions with Albee and the Howard University Virginia Woolf.

Kate Robison and Adam Zaininger as Nick and Honey in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Pulse Theatre Chicago (photo by Joe Mazza)

Professional vs. Non-Professional Productions

Following a phone conversation earlier this week with Arts Integrity, Chris Jackson, Producing Artistic Director of the Pulse Theatre Chicago and director of their Virginia Woolf, shared a statement explaining how they secured the rights for the show, having already explained that the company had no difficulty with its plans. He wrote:

“Pulse Theatre Chicago is a 501 (c)(3) non for profit, non-equity professional theatre company. We rent spaces across the city when we decide to mount each production. We do not have an artistic home and we work on a very low budget, mostly out of pocket. All of our artists are paid a small stipend after the run of the show. Because of those factors, Dramatist [Dramatists Play Service] informed us that we only qualify to the non-professional rights to the production, which in regards to casting, only requires that the gender of the characters may not be changed from the intended.

“To my knowledge, the estate only had an issue with the interracial casting of the couple of Nick and Honey, which is understandable because in my opinion that casting choice disrupts the central theme of The American Dream being unachievable. I don’t think the estate is complete restrictive of actors of color being cast in Albee plays. If they were, we wouldn’t be talking! As far as I know, the estate approved our production. The only communication I have received from the estate about this production specifically came from them through Dramatist. They sent, opening night, the revisions that Albee made for the Howard University production of the show.”

In conversation, Jackson noted that he had secured rights to Virginia Woolf more than a year ago, while Albee was still alive.

As it happens, the licensing rights for Virginia Woolf are slightly complicated, compared to many plays. Dramatists Play Service handles the non-professional rights, while Samuel French handles professional rights, resulting in part from the fact the DPS didn’t begin handling professional rights until the early 1980s. Lomma continues to handle “first class rights,” which include Broadway, national tours and the West End.

So while Pulse is a professional non-Equity company, for the definitions that exist between DPS and French, their production was deemed non-professional. While Shoebox is comparably small, they appear to have been defined as professional for the purposes of licensing.

Following a conversation with Arts Integrity, and responding to questions about the process of licensing Albee’s work, Peter Hagan, President of DPS, sent the following e-mail:

“Our Albee nonprofessional licenses essentially mirror our boilerplate licenses for our other plays.  The language simply says – as our other licenses do – that the play must be performed as written by the author, with no changes, etc.  As you know, Mr. Albee was very specific about how casting changes could affect the authenticity of what he had written.  Our license form for the Albee plays is actually quite old – so old, in fact, that it includes Albee’s prohibition against performing the play before a segregated audience!

As I told you, we do not represent the professional rights to some of the Albee plays, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For all of those Albee plays for which we do represent the professional rights, there is a stipulation that the director, actors, set, costumes and rehearsal schedule must be approved by the Estate of Edward Albee before a license is granted, as was the case when Mr. Albee was alive. As you know, he took a very hands-on approach to the professional productions of all of his plays.

As for our distinction between what is considered a professional production and what is considered nonprofessional, when actors are paid $150 per week or more for their work, we consider that a professional production, whether it is Equity or non-Equity.  Samuel French has a different policy, so you should check with them about that.”

Asked about how Samuel French handles the stipulations on Albee plays that French represents, the company’s executive director Bruce Lazarus said that, for all shows they license, “On professional productions, if requested by an author, we submit any information that is requested to the author’s agent. We support a playwright’s right to approve casting to be sure it reflects their authorial intent.”

Albee famously denied all requests to allow for productions of Virginia Woolf with entirely male casts.

*   *   *

Sophie Okonedo and Damian Lewis in the 2017 West End production of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (photo by Johann Persson)

In the wave of controversy over the Shoebox production that never was, a debate flourished over the rights of authors, and subsequently their estates, to exert control over the way in which plays are produced, beyond even the specific of Edward Albee’s requirements. It extended to the question of how long copyright protection runs and whether estates, by following the express wishes of an author too slavishly following their death, may be sustaining outdated thinking, be it in how texts are examined or how society has evolved since the play debuted.

Arts Integrity has written many times in the past in support of artists rights and the right of their estates, based in the legal protections afforded to authors in the theatre, which differs from film and television (and cases where a play may be sold for adaptation into those media). Arts Integrity also advocates for inclusive casting, and opening traditionally, and in some cases roles that were explicitly thought of as, white to performers of color.

It bears noting that Edward Albee passed away less than a year ago. While many chafed against the degree to which he controlled his works during his lifetime, and indeed may disagree with his feelings about the casting of Nick in relation to the rest of the company, it is not necessarily realistic to expect the people to whom he entrusted his estate to immediately abandon his wishes within months of his passing. That said, it is not unrealistic to imagine that the estate’s thinking will evolve, especially as current trustees of the estate will eventually give way to successors in future years, given the term of copyright.

For now, the creative elements of Albee’s plays in professional production, including directors and casts, will continue to be reviewed and approved by the agent for the estate, Lomma, and trustees of the estate, as submitted to them by DPS and French. However Lomma indicated that, save specifically for Nick in Virginia Woolf being cast as black with the others characters as white, there is no hard and fast proscription against artists of color taking on roles in the plays. Sophie Okonedo’s role in a recent West End production of The Goat, a role played on Broadway by Mercedes Ruehl and then Sally Field, is evidence that’s the case.

However, all parties represented in this article made the point of saying that the sooner producers engage in conversation about their interest in Albee’s plays, and their plans for them, the less likely it is that issues will arise.

In contrast to the impression left in May, Jonathan Lomma said, on behalf of the estate, “In Edward’s almost 30 plays, virtually all of the roles can and should be done in a diverse, color conscious fashion.”