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Who's Afraid Of A Diverse Cast?

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee in 1965.
Jack Mitchell
Getty Images
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee in 1965.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a brilliant, scalding and essential play that is often revived. But the Complete Works Project in Oregon won't present the play this fall because the estate of the playwright, Edward Albee, won't give permission for them to cast an African-American actor in the featured role of Nick, a young professor.

The play's director, Michael Streeter, refuses to fire an actor for the color of his skin.

"I am furious and dumbfounded," he wrote on Facebook.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf won a Tony Award in 1963. Edward Albee died last year at the age of 88.

The reasoning, if that's quite the word, of the Albee estate doesn't seem to be simple racism. It sound like convoluted racism.

A note sent by Sam Rudy, who represents the Albee estate, says, "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." He adds that putting an interracial couple into a 1962 play implies an aspect to the plot that is not in Albee's script.

But Michael Streeter responded: "I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play. The character is an up and comer. He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962," Streeter wrote to the OnStage theater blog.

I don't know if the Albee estate grasps that when they refuse permission for an African-American actor to appear in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they turn a great play into a controversy. Any respected theater company who wants to stage Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf will now be asked if they agreed to cast white actors only.

I also wonder if the Albee estate belittles the ability of audiences to see characters onstage, not just skin color. After all, Hamilton, the biggest hit in modern theater, casts actors who are not white as white, slave-owning Founding Fathers.

I'm going to see an eighth-grade production of Hamlet next week. I don't believe that our daughter's classmates, who are of all races, can't put on Shakespeare's play, or that the story and poetry is lost on them, because none of those eighth graders are Danish. For that matter, I like to think theater audiences now know that a great playwright who was gay, like Edward Albee, could write with empathy and grace about straight married couples.

The Albee estate may believe they are protecting a great play from harm. But in so doing, they may also risk making the play disappear.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.