Why A Theater Director Made A 'Color-Conscious Choice' In 'Virginia Woolf' Casting : Code Switch A small theater in Portland, Ore., cast an African-American actor in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But the Albee estate wouldn't grant the rights to produce the 1962 play.
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Why A Theater Director Made A 'Color-Conscious Choice' In 'Virginia Woolf' Casting

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Why A Theater Director Made A 'Color-Conscious Choice' In 'Virginia Woolf' Casting

Why A Theater Director Made A 'Color-Conscious Choice' In 'Virginia Woolf' Casting

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The next story started when a director and producer from a tiny theater in Portland, Ore., posted a message on Facebook. He was outraged that the estate of Edward Albee wouldn't grant him rights to produce "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" because he had cast a black actor in one of the roles. The post went viral, but Jeff Lunden reports this isn't entirely about race.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Michael Streeter says he wanted to dust off Albee's 55-year-old play and give it a new angle, so he cast an African-American actor in the role of Nick, a young biology professor who visits an older academic couple with his wife. Nick is described in the script as blond and blue-eyed.

MICHAEL STREETER: In 1962, the year the play was written, African-Americans were facing tremendous strife with the civil rights movement, and the character of Nick was ambitious. He is striving to get ahead, and he puts up with a lot of invective from the other characters in the play. And this is something that I see as emblematic of what was happening in the African-American community in 1962.

LUNDEN: But the Albee estate, which approves the casting of all professional productions of the late playwright's work, did not agree. Streeter vented his frustration online, and the media responded.

TANIA RICHARD: I knew the minute I read the initial article that I felt it wasn't racist, that I felt it was completely within Albee's estate's rights to maintain the vision that he intentioned.

LUNDEN: Chicago-based actress Tania Richard, who co-hosts a podcast called "Race Bait," wrote a blog post about it. Richard is black. Streeter is white.

RICHARD: To ask the character of Nick to be black in this world in the '60s on a small campus in New England is sort of suggesting an alternate universe that couldn't have existed, you know, and this isn't a fantasy piece. This is a very specific piece.

LUNDEN: Many plays in the American canon are very specific about time and place, which can limit opportunities for actors of color. So for years, theaters have attempted to correct this with colorblind casting. There have been mixed-race productions of plays by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, says New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley.

BEN BRANTLEY: It has to be done, I think, on a case-by-case basis in which you weigh the elements and think how much does this distort the author's vision? But when you're talking about Shakespeare, when you're talking about musicals, when you're talking about plays that have been in the canon of Western civilization for centuries, I think then anything goes.

LUNDEN: However, what Director Michael Streeter was proposing with "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was not colorblind casting.

STREETER: There's also color-conscious casting where you deliberately choose to cast a person that is different from what's written in the play. This was a color-conscious choice on my part because I thought that it added depth to the play, that there would be certain lines that would have more resonance. There would be the question that would happen throughout the play as the audience is watching these people abuse this character. And you wonder, OK, are they going to start using racial slurs?

LUNDEN: And in the boozy second act of the play, things get particularly nasty between the two academic couples.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

ARTHUR HILL: (As George) So I know what we'll do. How about a little round of Get the Guests? How about that? How about a little game of Get the Guests?

RICHARD: Will they or won't they throw a racial slur at this guy? And for me, when I heard that, I was like, well, that's just awful.

LUNDEN: Tania Richard again.

RICHARD: And as an actor, I don't want to be put in that position. I don't want to be sort of the target for the audience almost bloodlust about whether or not the character is going to be called the N-word or not. That's creating a whole other layer to the piece that was never intended in the first place.

LUNDEN: The Albee estate wouldn't speak directly to NPR about the decision. Instead, it sent a statement saying Albee had remarked on several occasions that a mixed-race marriage in the early 1960s would not have gone unnoticed in the script. Though Albee did approve the casting of a black actress as the older professor's wife when the playwright was still alive. This is the first time the estate has had to deal with this issue since Albee's death last September. For his part, Director Michael Streeter, while disappointed, understands the estate's position.

STREETER: I don't think this is racially motivated. This is absolutely about a fealty to the integrity of Edward Albee.

LUNDEN: In the end, if you want to insert your ideas into someone else's play, Tania Richard offers some advice from one of her old writing teachers.

RICHARD: He had this wonderful quote where he would say, well, maybe you should write that play.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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