Last month, I noticed a post in my Facebook newsfeed about the Edward Albee Estate denying rights to a producer for a Portland, Oregon stage production of Albee’s classic 1962 play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf“. The Albee Estate made their decision to withhold rights based on the casting: the production chose to cast the blond or “blondie” Nick with a Black actor. Nick’s wife, Honey, and the remaining cast (George and Martha) are white. As with all disappointments, the producer, Michael Streeter, took to Facebook to express his furry and frustration with the Albee Estate.
The first theatrical production I saw of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was in 2001 at Howard University, one of the country’s leading HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). The production featured a Black student cast and was directed by drama professor Vera J. Katz. Before seeing the live play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was for me a classic story of art imitating the tumultuous on-and-off-love-affair life of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the big screen.
Even though I had to adjust my imagination to see actors under the age of 25 as middle-aged adults, the Howard production was wonderful and amplified the strengths and relevance of the play 50 years later. The Howard production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is especially noteworthy, not for the casting but the fact that Edward Albee himself made a personal contribution. During Albee’s lifetime (he died in 2016) and obviously today, Albee’s plays and their casts go through a review process before production rights are granted.
I fired off an email to Katz suggesting she share her story about Edward Albee in the heat of the casting debate. I remember a photo of her and the playwright at Howard for a Washington Post article, “Drama Lessons by Megan Rosenfeld (May 11, 2001).
In the online debate over the Albee Estate’s reasoning and decision for the Portland production, there have been casual references to the Howard production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” here and there. But no mention of Howard University or Vera J. Katz which I’ve been more than happy to contribute having been a witness. The producer for the Portland production responded to my Facebook comment saying Albee’s Estate would probably approve an all-Black cast vs. his casting choice for Nick.
Would the Portland production [re]consider that option?
Weeks after sending my email I get a call from Katz. She agreed that her story should be shared as part of the discussion. As I write this introduction to her statement I notice how history nearly repeats itself with a digital turn in how the telling of another Albee story unfolds.
Vera J. Katz asked me to post the following on her behalf:
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).
An amplified discussion of Edward Albee’s visit will appear in Katz’s upcoming book A Toolbox of Techniques for Actors. Vera J. Katz is professor emeritus for the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts where she taught for 32 years; and has taught at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC for 16 years.