Casting Director Claims He Was Told To Fire A Black Actor In Favour Of A White One

A casting director from Oregon has had the rights to the play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, revoked as a result of him casting of a black actor.

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If you haven't seen or read Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, let us briefly break it down for you.

The play revolves around the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George, who invite a young married pair, Nick and Honey, over to their house for dinner. Following a night of scathing arguments between the hosts, talk of murder, infertility, fictional children and affairs, the play ends with George singing, 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?' with Martha replying 'I am, George...I am'.

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Just your casual Saturday night supper club, right?

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the film 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?', 1966

Anyway, a casting director from a theatre company in Oregon, US has claimed the Edward Albee Estate – the organisation which grant permission to use the late playwright's work – has revoked the rights to the play because they hired a black actor to play the role of Nick, instead of a white man.

On Wednesday, casting director Michael Streeter took to Facebook to complain about the foundation's alleged revoking of the play's rights due to his casting, explaining: '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 They have withdrawn the rights,' he added.

The play was due to run in September at the Shoebox Theater in Portland, Oregon, according to audition listings posted to Facebook and Backstage, with Streeter announcing he was on the search for an 'African American, Ethnically Ambiguous / Mixed Race' man to play the role of Nick.

As a result of Streeter's casting, a letter was sent to him from Press Representative Sam Rudy from the Edward Albee Estate (later obtained by Jezebel) in which it described the casting director's decision to advertise the production before securing the rights to the play and permission of his casting a 'gross violation of standard agreements'.

'Insofar as the Albee Estate had not approved the actor in question, you were in violation of the agreement by hiring him in the first place,' reads the memo.

'The decision to 'fire' him was yours and yours alone by virtue of your own misstep,' Rudy added.

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The memo also explained the choice of race when it comes to the role of Nick, reading:

Regarding the matter of your request to cast an actor who is African-American as Nick in VIRGINIA WOOLF?, 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.

Furthermore, Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for non-traditional 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 1960's.

This provides clear evidence that productions of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? must, indeed, continue to be cast per Mr. Albee's intention, and according to the legal rights held by his estate, which works with great care to ensure that the author's intent is upheld as closely as possible and with great consideration given to his stage directions and dialogue.

Entertainment journalist Mark Harris has since commented about Streeter's post on Twitter explaining:

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'I don't know if this reflects Albee's wish. If it does, that wish should not have survived him,' he added.

He explained: 'I don't find the 'authorial intent' argument persuasive in this case. Also, casting lives in a tricky place [between] authorship and production.'

Colourblind casting has long been a contentious issue in the theatre and film industry, as has most famously been seen in the on-going argument about William Shakespeare's Othello being played by white actors.

Controversial theatre veteran, Steven Berkoff once wrote: 'To reserve, out of the hundreds of Shakespearean characters, the role of Othello for black people only is a form of racism in reverse and, to me, particularly obnoxious.'

Erff.

Of course, actors should be recognised and cast for the their talents alone, not due to their race, but then again, until we write enough coloured and ethnically different characters into our scripts, have those scripts make it to the stage and screen, plus encourage and educate all backgrounds through their acting degrees so that the pool of top talent from which we pick our parts is diverse enough, we won't ever achieve an acceptable level of representation.

Sometimes, you have to do a few things to tip the balance.

The issue, of course, is when you consider that ethnicity or race might somehow be integral to the identity of the character and the narrative context. Othello's blackness is much picked over during the play, with his 'moorish' background frequently alluded to with relation to Desdemona.

But then, some might level the argument that Virginia Woolf's Nick is alleged to have 'Aryan' qualities and it must be considered that he is in the play, married to a white woman in 1960s.

We would have to consider that playing to a 2017 audience makes that part of the text is surmountable - in favour of making it relatable to a modern viewership.

As long as we haven't yet achieved racial representation, it is imperative we continue discussing 'colourblind casting.' Plus, of course, all the things mentioned above that would facilitate more ethnicities making it onto the acting stage.

Race is not an issue we can gloss over, but we need to approach it with intelligence and thoughtful, openminded discussion.

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