The Albee Controversy: Throwing the Baby Out With the Racist Bathwater

EdwardAlbee.uhoustondiglib

A young Edward Albee (1928 – 2016). Source: University of Houston Digital Library.

For the, oh, seven of you out there who haven’t yet heard, the Albee estate denied the rights to a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the company (Complete Works Project in Oregon) cast a Black man as Nick. 
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First, congratulations, Complete Works Project, for being the center of a national controversy, and with such a banal play choice! I did multiple new plays that drew angry conservative picketers in other cities, and I never got so much as a pissy letter. That’s Berkeley for you. Enjoy the publicity, and I hope you take the ensuing donations and do a new play by a writer of color starring that Black actor.
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The racism of the Albee estate decision is undeniable, and it’s absolutely our responsibility as a theatre community to decry it and to pressure the estate to reverse its decision.
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 HOWEVER. Playwrights need to have the right to protect their work, even when they make stupid, racist decisions that contribute to their swiftly approaching irrelevance.
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Albee’s legacy isn’t the argument here. I don’t care if Nick is described in the text as literal Hitler, the estate could have given permission to an undergrad theatre club to stage the entire Albee catalogue with mac-and-cheese-filled sock puppets singing the lines as screamo in a university housing common area filled with cats, pot, and bike parts and Albee’s legacy would have been fine. Yanking the rights over a Black actor is far more damaging to the legacy than perhaps any other possible choice the estate could have made apart from allowing Disney to make an animated Three Tall Princesses. It’s stunningly poor management.
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Racism isn’t the argument here. The estate’s decision was absolutely racist, period, the end. That’s not up for debate. It’s the kind of racism that demeans the entire industry and requires resistance.
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Neither the preservation of the legacy nor the racism are the debate here, since both are settled matters as far as I’m concerned. The debate, for me, is about the people answering “What do we do about this” by hauling out the tired old chestnut “PLAYWRIGHTS SHOULD LET ME DO WHATEVER I WANT TO THEIR WORK.”
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I believe Albee’s estate made a shortsighted, racist decision that mismanages his work and misunderstands the basics of art. I believe the estates of canonical playwrights should bestow a certain measure of freedom to companies who wish to stage these older, canonical works in ways that engage them in healthy dialogue with the current culture and with various modern points of view. Virginia Woolf is 55 years old, and the culture with which it was originally designed to engage is gone. While there is certainly artistic merit in historically accurate works as windows into bygone eras, I believe that allowing older canonical works to acquire new relevance within a modern artistic dialogue nearly always results in more interesting work.* I believe there is real value in creating places for people of color in (almost invariably white male) canonical works, just as there is real value in queering cishet work, doing all-female productions of Shakespeare, and all of the other ways people have sought to make room in canonical works for marginalized voices. I believe Albee’s estate is working studiously to make Albee, as quickly as possible, one of those unknown writers who was wildly popular in his day that grad students encounter while researching something else. He’ll be another Arthur Wing Pinero if they keep this up, and they probably will.
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Who?

I also believe that 99% of playwrights under Albee’s stature, especially women and PoC, have traditionally and historically seen their work stolen from them, been paid a pittance (or less) for the rights to their work and told they should be grateful for “the exposure,” struggle to make ends meet with their writing or struggle to write around the demands of a day job– or both (looking at you, San Francisco writers, paying the most expensive rents in the country).
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I’m worried about those playwrights– the rank and file. The 99%. Albee and his estate and every play he wrote can sink into Oblivion, but I will stand between playwrights and people who want to rob them of their ability to protect their work, especially since so often this discussion seems to be centered around white voices convinced of their primary artistic entitlement over the living playwrights they see as a hindrance. Playwrights are currently allowed legal protections over their work, and we should, as an industry, be working to preserve that. The price for that is the occasional destructive, bigoted decision by a writer or estate. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing about those destructive, bigoted decisions. Quite the opposite. My point is: Fight the bigotry head-on, not the principle of playwright IP rights. Don’t throw the baby out with the racist bathwater.
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1. We must call out bigotry when we see it. Playwrights should have the right to protect their work (either during their lifetimes or when leaving directives to an estate executor) even in objectively terrible ways, but they do not have the right to do that free from criticism. Whether we change anything regarding the way the Albee estate is handled is immaterial. We’re changing the entire culture by demonstrating that these types of decisions are not acceptable.
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2. I state above that there’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized– women, people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, etc.
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3. Support the work you want to see with your attendance, buzz, and donations. It is wickedly hard to sell a new play, which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work. Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate.
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We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.
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*With the single exception of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett’s works are little, exquisite machines. Take out a cog and replace it with a dancer — why is it always dancers?– and the wheels fall off. But on principle I support your right to try staging Not I in full light with projections of Trump rallies and even dancers, if you must. (But that proscription against cross gender casting remains bunk.)
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12 thoughts on “The Albee Controversy: Throwing the Baby Out With the Racist Bathwater

  1. Adam Versenyi says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Cogent as always. The only comment I’d make regarding Beckett’s stage directions is that their intent, not their letter, should be what is recognized. When the Beckett estate shut down the Shaw/Warner production of Footfalls because May was wearing a red wrap against the theatre’s red background, instead of a gray wrap against a gray background as specified by the stage directions they weren’t preserving Beckett’s legacy but violating his intent.

    Best,

    Adam

  2. George Sapio says:

    Yeah. A pathetic situation. In plays where certain socio issues do not make a difference, cast according to who does the role the best way and revel in the variety of ways your work is interpreted. That alone is the best gift a playwright can have. I agree: Albee is becoming more and more irrelevant. However we must remember that many of today’s playwrights will, in due time, follow Albee.

    • Jim Patrick says:

      Why does Albee become a racist now and not earlier? If you don’t like the restrictions, don’t do the play.

      • Joseph Michael Blake says:

        And if an estate enforces a racist restriction on the sale or rental of property you just don’t move in

  3. J Richard Smith says:

    Melissa, this is a wonderful argument that I, in most part, agree with. However, in the back of my mind are the words of August Wilson in his argument against just this thing in the keynote speech he gave at the national TCG Conference “The Ground On Which I Stand.” I have taught that speech and its larger questions and implications to freshmen. Talk about having minds blown?! And I continually grapple with the direction these arguments have taken seeming to divide us rather than bring us together as you are advocating. But I do agree that we must continue to fight to breakdown these barriers and perceptions with a greater understanding of a universal humanity, if you will. Thank you for continuing this dialogue in such a thoughtful way.

    • Can you believe that piece is 21 years old now? Time flies. Obviously I disagree with him that casting Black actors in Shakespeare or Miller is a direct assault on Black theatre. I’ve written many times– in this piece as well– that we need both plays by writers of color *and* diverse casting that interrogates canonical plays. Limiting theatres producing a play by a white writer to hiring white actors isn’t going to create a better industry. We already had that– for centuries–and it was terrible. He leaves out every other kind of marginalized identity– Asian American, Latinx, people with disabilities, women, trans* people. Our current intersectional understanding problematizes Wilson’s desire to keep everyone separate. But his points about the marginalizing of Black work is something I’ve written about repeatedly, especially in pieces that cover white angst over “Why aren’t people of color going to the theatre”? and “Those poor people of color need access to *A*R*T*.” Meaning: white theatre; white art. Meanwhile Black people are creating every single aspect of our artistic culture as we moan about their lack of attendance at a production of Dinner With Friends.

  4. gwangung says:

    This is very much the same argument that I use about whitewashing or inaccurate racial notions: you have the right to do what you want, and I have the right to tell you when you’ve fucked up (and if you don’t want to be told you’ve fucked up, then you just don’t want to be criticized).

    That so many people flatten out the argument and reduce it to starker terms shows that we have so far to go in grappling with these issues.

  5. marymtf says:

    I didn’t mind what Hollywood did with Asimov’s I, Robot. I thought Will Smith was good in the lead. He’s good at most things he does. I did wonder at the time, whether Asimov would have preferred a Jew in the lead role.

    Writers rarely have a say once their play or novel is bought. Everyone else in the industry does, but not the writer, There are always people, lesser lights, who want to put their stamp on someone else’s work. I think writers should be allowed a say without having to kowtow to the politically correct.

    ‘From Wikipedia:
    Albee established the Edward F. Albee Foundation, Inc. in 1967, from royalties from his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The foundation funds the William Flanagan Memorial Creative Persons Center (named after the composer William Flanagan, but better known as “The Barn”) in Montauk, New York, as a residence for writers and visual artists. The foundation’s mission is “to serve writers and visual artists from all walks of life, by providing time and space in which to work without disturbance.’ I’m not aware that anyone is excluded by virtue of their religion or colour.

    So perhaps it has to do with how Albeee saw his character. Did you know that it was Albee who said that he didn’t want to be seen as a gay writer, but as a writer who happens to be gay?

  6. In the early nineties in London I saw a performance of Wilde’s “Importance of being Ernest” with a all-black cast. It was wonderful. I think that’s all that I need to say, really.

  7. Mary Fields says:

    I do not agree. Nick is, and was intended to be, a symbol of white male privilege. For him to be played by a black actor makes as much sense as the casting of a white actor to play a family member in Raisin in the Sun. Albee doesn’t allow this play to be set in the present, so to pretend that in the early 1960’s race was not an issue, that a young black man would be a threat to an older white man in white academia is to change the play and disregard history. It should be noted that Albee’s estate has not had a problem casting other roles in other plays with black actors.

  8. Huestin says:

    Nick is literally described as Aryan. This is not racist. It makes no sense to cast a black actor. It undermines the play. Crisis averted.

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