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Racial Casting and Theatrical Sacrilege

From Jonathan Minton, May 23, 2017

I’m wondering about your take on the controversy over the Edward Albee Estate refusing to let Director Michael Streeter cast Damien Geter, a black actor, as Nick in his production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Shoebox Theatre in Portland, Oregon. It’s been creating a ruckus on social media among theater types, and part of the interest to me is what I’m seeing as the reverence being lent to Albee and his work that isn’t extended to, say, Shakespeare, and if there’s anything to be illuminated by that on the part of either (or both) playwrights.

From Eric Minton, May 24, 2017

Here’s an excerpt from The New York Times May 21, 2017, article “A Black Actor in ‘Virginia Woolf?’ Not Happening, Albee Estate Says,” summing up the Albee estate’s argument:

“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,” Sam Rudy, a spokesman for the Albee Estate said in a letter to Michael Streeter, the producer. “Furthermore, 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.”

These are perfectly valid points that Rudy makes; they also are not only indicative of the industry’s institutional racism, they show a lack of artistic ingenuity.

Let’s start with his first contention about Nick expressly being characterized by Aryan physical references; what happens when you alter those references to the actors’ specific physical characteristics, or drop them altogether? Hmmmm. As for the mixed-race marriage issue, I’m not convinced that mixed-race marriages would get mention in mixed company even in 1963. And wouldn't the lack of mention amp up the psychological tension in the actors’ portrayal of such head-in-the-sand silence? Hmmmmm.

Such bull crap logic against mixed racial or gender casting, whether regarding Albee or Shakespeare, is not only inherently racist and sexist, it’s evidence of limited intellectual capacity on the part of directors, audiences, or, in this case, dead writers who chain themselves to textual purity or casting traditions.

As for the sacredness of Albee versus Shakespeare, this applies to several other staging conditions beyond casting. For example, how many directors would transpose scenes in Virginia Woolf as they commonly do with Shakespeare’s plays? How many would update Virginia Woolf’s 1960s setting as commonly happens with Shakespeare? How about “modernizing” the 1960s language of Virginia Woolf to make it more understandable for 2010s audiences? No, no, and certainly not. I’m for all of the above (with serious reservations about updating the language) with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and I see no reason why directors can’t do the same with more modern texts. On this website I’ve advocated for a modern-dress version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest because I think it would better land Wilde’s cynical view of privileged society right in the psyche of today’s audience. And yet, actors have told me such staging would never work with Wilde—actors who, by the way, commonly play in modern-dress Shakespeare.

There seems to be a 100-year rule with texts: Anything set from, say, 1890 on must be presented with total fealty as if that’s the statute of limitations on textual veracity. Anything before that—from modern dress, mixed-race Chekhov to rapping Founding Fathers to Greek tragedies turned into gospel revues—is fair game for modernizing. A big part of that is due to the playwright estates. Thornton Wilder’s estate pushed back on Faction of Fools’ brilliant commedia dell arte production of Our Town though such staging got to the heart of Wilder’s thematic intentions more profoundly than any other production I’ve seen. This is more the estate protecting its version of the playwright without perhaps grasping the playwright's own contextual theatrical essence (frankly, there are Shakespeare “estates” that have similar viewpoints). I know little about Albee and have to take Rudy at his word regarding the playwright’s previous reticence toward “nontraditional casting” (there’s a loaded term, by the way; integrated buses and water fountains were once nontraditional, too). But I look to the example set by Tom Stoppard who has said that he wishes directors would take more liberties with his scripts; after all, they do with Shakespeare.

From Jonathan Minton, May 25, 2017

It’s also worth pointing out that The New York Times article reported that in 2002 Albee approved the casting of Andrea Frye, a black actress, as Martha in Tim Bond’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the play. And a couple of years before that, Albee personally collaborated with Vera J. Katz on her Howard University production featuring an all-black cast, which included altered dialogue. This at least casts a questionable light on the Albee Estate’s claim that a mixed marriage wouldn’t go unremarked upon. If the younger couple’s mixed status wouldn’t be brought up, the lack of comment on the older couple’s mixed status (from an even more rigid generation, and Martha being the daughter of the college’s president) would be even more of a head-scratcher.

Winchester in log red robe with white fur trim, priest hat, scepter stands next to Henry in gold robe and crown sitting on throne, next to Margaret in red dress, gray cloke, white high hat and holding a bouquet of roses standing next to Gloucester in black robes and chain around his neck.
Sophie Okonedo plays Queen Margaret in the Hollow Crown production of William Shakespeare's Henry VI. Also pictured are, from left, the Bishop of Winchester (Samuel West), Henry VI (Tom Sturridge), and Gloucester (Hugh Bonneville). Photo by Robert Viglasky, BBC and PBS.

“Would be” because in spotlighting their own apparent inability to look beyond a married couple comprised of two different racial backgrounds, the Albee Estate assumes that a theater-going audience is wholly incapable of seeing beyond race, an insult that does no one any favors. This disregards numerous successful examples of theater (both contemporary and classic) with diverse casting that deviated from the original material (written or historical): the Tony-winning revival of You Can’t Take It with You featured James Earl Jones as the patriarch of a dominantly white family; the recent Hollow Crown miniseries featured Sophie Okonedo as the iconic Queen Margaret (Okonedo is currently appearing in the West End revival of another Albee highlight, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?); a Steppenwolf production of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette featured Alana Arenas as the titular queen; and part of the commercial and critical success of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton revolves around the ethnically anachronistic casting.

Audiences are (mostly) embracing this progression enthusiastically; by denying actors of color the opportunity to play any of these characters, Rudy & Co. are announcing their membership with the theater-going audience that believes (subconsciously or not) that the purpose of theater is to advance the white narrative.

Revisions of contemporary playwrights’ texts aren’t uncommon—you reference Stoppard, and Tony Kushner has revised his work on Angels in America not once but twice, most recently for the 2010 Signature Theatre revival. If anyone can be held in the same esteem as Albee when it comes to "Titan of American Theatre," Kushner is one (as are August Wilson, Susan Lori-Parks, etc.). Both are examples of playwrights approaching their work as literature to continuously be improved upon; both are examples of playwrights catching their work up with the changing times and sensibilities, period-setting be damned. The playwrights’ prerogative is an indisputable thing, varying from writer to writer, with varying degrees of adherence from directors. But that prerogative can say more than the entirety of any play.

From Eric Minton, May 25, 2017

Here’s another playwright to add to that list of Stoppard and Kushner: Shakespeare. The differences in First Folio and earlier quarto texts indicate his company, The King’s Men, tweaking and, in the case of Hamlet and King Lear, overhauling the text. Given how Shakespeare wrote so anachronistically for his time—including the subtle social changes that came about with the transition from Queen Elizabeth’s reign to James’s—I’m guessing these revisions were his. If not, he probably didn’t throw a hissy fit (the guy was pretty litigious, after all).

But you make a most profound point in referencing James Earl Jones. Imagine all the great theater this world would have missed out on if everybody hewed to “traditional” casting—not just racial but gender, too, going back to the boy actors of Shakespeare’s time. If Shakespeare had his head with him, he’d be shaking it at the notion that there would be no Judi Dench to play his Juliet, his Viola, his Beatrice, his Cleopatra, or his Countess.

From Jonathan Minton, May 26, 2017

Shakespeare: His prerogative has been lost in time, but 400 years on his work is still produced frequently worldwide. Why? One reason, as you allude to, may be that you can do any damn thing you please when it comes to Shakespeare, warranted or not. And why shouldn’t you? Most audiences don’t respond to Shakespeare for the historical accuracy, the archaic politics, the military intrigue (though to be honest, I myself do get a kick out of that). What’s persevered in Shakespeare’s work is the humanity in his characters and their stories, that universal quality all good playwrights strive to hit upon in their own work. That intact, inherent humanity in Shakespeare’s canon is what allows it to stand the test of time, a distinction any playwright should hope for, a distinction Albee’s Estate seems willing to bury with this decision.

To continue this conversation e-mail bardroom@shakespeareances.com.