A headline from the Sunday, May 21, 2017 New York Times caught my attention. It was nothing momentous, nothing of concern on the national or international stage – although it did concern a stage. This news item, probably and justifiably inconsequential to most readers, was about what is not going to appear on the stage of a 35-seat theater in Portland, Oregon, and why. The “why” is what caught me.
The story, written by Times theater reporter Michael Paulson, was about the minor controversy that arose when a producer planning to mount a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” learned he would not be granted the rights to do so because a black actor was cast in the role of a character whose blue-eyed blondness is spoken of more than once in the play. Playwright Edward Albee, who died eight months ago, was notoriously protective of his work, so the denial of rights by his estate was in line with what he would have wished. As Paulson writes, “Albee, one of the nation’s leading 20th-century playwrights, was known for his tight control over professional productions of his plays, insisting on approval of casts and directors while he was alive; directors were often required to submit head shots of proposed cast members before receiving the rights to mount his plays.”
Before you get the wrong idea about where I’m going with this, let me say Albee’s (and his estate’s) objections are not without merit. Albee set his play in the 1960s, and the character in question, Nick, is married. Paulson writes that a representative of the estate noted that Albee himself, having previously considered the matter of nontraditional casting, had pointed out that a black and white couple in that period “’… would not have gone unacknowledged…’” Let me say also that Albee was not always consistent; a black actress played the lead without his objections in 2002. Paulson reports that, two years earlier, Albee assisted with a black-cast production of the play at Howard University. So, no, I see no need to view this brouhaha as racism extending its grip from the grave. What, then, is my interest in this story? Well, we’ll get to that.
First, let me share part of an exchange I had before beginning to write this. I asked a friend (Gregory Ford, and for reasons that will be made clear) what his thoughts were on the matter. He wrote “I don’t have any problem with the Albee estate’s decision. 1) It’s his work. If you want to do your interpretation, write your work; 2) August Wilson – again write your own works from your own people’s mythology; 3) I think Albee writes about whiteness and its repercussions on the world in a way that is similar to how Melville writes about whiteness and how its pursuit, spurred by capitalism, is destructive. I think casting Black actors in this situation allows white people in particular to avoid looking at the destruction their systems perpetrate and how they collude in the maintenance of that destruction.” My agreement was only partial. So strongly do I feel that artists should be doing their own thing that I once wrote a proposal and distributed it among theater friends questioning the efficacy of waiting for casting calls and other offers of work from theaters and producers. (I was young and idealistic). I entreated them to work collectively as their own producers, commissioning the writing of new plays, renting or leasing theater space, hiring directors and other personnel, and developing the criteria for casting members of the collective in productions.
My thinking varied from Ford’s in that I did not see Albee’s work as about whiteness. I wonder if Albee did. If so, he underestimated his own gifts as an artist. In Albee’s work, I’ve always found the human experience, as I have in the works of artists who may never have had “the other” in mind when in the act of creating. I’ve always been able to see the lives of black people reflected in the experiences of those who might never imagine such a thing. As if reading my mind, Ford later followed up with this erudite observation: “On the other hand, a large part of the survival of African Americans is due to the appropriation of the cultural conserves of other cultures and adapting them to forms that served to express and nurture the existence of Africans in the diaspora. Jazz, gospel and all that has come since. So why not appropriate Albee or My Fair Lady?” Exactly.
The question of my interest in this story can be answered by something else Ford said in his first thoughts on the matter, when his initial reaction to the Times article elicited admonishment for those who would do Albee their way. “My views have shifted since we did it, maybe. And maybe it’s different if it is an all-Black cast. I don’t know.” Twelve years before Albee reportedly assisted Howard University with such a cast, Ford, the late Gideon Ferebee and I attempted to mount such a production. What happened instead is the tale I now tell.
My interest began long ago on a Saturday night, sitting in front of a television, not prepared for the movie I was about to see, now eternally grateful. I guess I sat down to watch because of who was going to be in it: Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband, Richard Burton. The night ended with me being marked for life. Why the caustic relationship of the main characters left such a lasting influence on a high-schooler is something I have yet to figure out. Later, when reading Albee’s “The Zoo Story” in English class and learning the movie that had stunned me was a film adaptation of another of his plays, it was the beginning of an idea that stayed buried in the back of my mind for years: I would love to do that play one day and, if I ever did, all the characters would be black.
Those who have known me since those days already know the idea of my doing a play is not unusual. Theater, not academics, was the motivating factor for me in high school. In fact, by the time I got to be a senior, there were days when I only went to school after dismissal time and only for rehearsals of the play we were doing. Even my brief foray into academia following high school was curtailed by a lack of interest in school; among other non-academic pursuits, I was drawn to the black drama group on campus.
The idea of doing Albee’s play never left me, but – over the years — became more of a nice dream because of a dilemma I saw no way of overcoming. “Virginia Woolf” requires an actress of prodigious talents to play the lead character of Martha, and it had been more than a decade since I had seen one I knew could pull it off. She, too, had joined that college drama group, a girl so good it just didn’t make sense, a girl named Alfre Woodard.
Then, one evening, I saw my Martha. She was at the now-defunct Back Alley Theater which was in DC’s 16th Street Heights neighborhood. I had gone there to see the play “Bumps.” I remember an evening of energy and excitement and wonderful performances, and in the midst of all that talent stood a standout. Her name is Cathy Simpson (still doing her thing, having finished a run in “Seven Guitars” in St. Louis in April and another one in “Peaceable Kingdom” in Philadelphia in May). At the time, I didn’t know whether I ever would do Albee’s play, but seeing Cathy gave me hope.
Hope grew when I learned about Sanctuary Theater, a venue then in Columbia Heights where that neighborhood meets the communities of Adams-Morgan and Mt. Pleasant, right in my neighborhood in fact, but a theater I never had visited. That changed when the late Garth Tate decided to direct his play “Blood Moon” there and asked me to do the lights, something I regularly did for folk who needed it. At Sanctuary, I became acquainted with its founders and artistic directors, Michael Oliver and Elizabeth Bruce, and learned how accommodating they were with their space. Their co-founder, Jill Navarre, a director I had done lights for on a few productions, has written of the three of them that “We were crazy enough to think we could start a new theatre company in Washington which would present cross cultural, inter-racial, avant-garde theatre. And we did.” Following Garth’s play, the actor Clayton LeBouef asked me to do the lights for a play he was directing there, one he had written and in which he would be performing. Clayton would have been a perfect “Nick” for a production of “Virginia Woolf,” but that was still a dream.
The dream began to take form thanks to two colleagues and collaborators, Ford and the late Gideon Ferebee, both of whom – like I (and the aforementioned Garth Tate) – had been among the founding members of the Station-to-Station Performance Poets and Writers’ Collective. The Collective had run its course (another story for another day), and one of the things that had grown from it was Dream-Keepers Productions, an idea of Gideon’s that he had invited Ford and me to help make real. We saw the potential Sanctuary presented and decided to make use of it. As co-producers, we would rent the theater and mount two productions to run in repertory. Ford would direct “The Dozens” by Laird Koenig, and – finally — I was going to direct “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
There was no need to hold auditions for the role of Martha. In my mind, there could be no play without Cathy Simpson in the role. When asked, she said yes. That left me with the stark realization that the other cast members had to be able to rise to her standards. My first inclination was to also not hold auditions for the role of Nick, but to offer it to a young actor I had been strongly impressed by when he had performed at Sanctuary in Clayton’s play, an actor named Isaiah Washington; Isaiah said yes, which meant two down and two to go.
I booked space at the city’s Reeves Center and held auditions for the roles of George, Martha’s husband, and Honey, Nick’s wife. The character of George must be able to go toe-to-toe with the tornado/volcano that is Martha, able to slow her wind and douse her flame; the actor playing the part had to be able to hold his own with Cathy. That actor was Michael Mack, who stepped up to the plate at the audition and hit an out-of-the-ballpark homerun right-off-the-bat, causing me to have to disappoint a friend and neighbor who really wanted the part. I had encountered Michael ten years earlier, when I was running lights at what had been the O. Street Theater when I attended a play there in high school, but what had become the grandiloquently-named Paul Robeson International Center for the Performing Arts (again, another story for another time). Michael had wowed everyone who watched him the day he came to the Robeson to audition, but the Center’s artistic director decided that the then 15-year-old, who had been accompanied there by his father, was too young for the play we were doing at the time. Now, ten years later, here he was demonstrating he had only gotten better. The character of George is a middle-aged man, but the 25-year-old Michael had the voice, the presence, could the effect the carriage, and could evince the gravitas needed to pull it off. I gave him the part. The cast was complete when I selected an actress named Pamela Armstrong for the role of Honey. There would be a black-cast production of “Virginia Woolf” in Washington, DC.
Not knowing any better, we assumed that the fact it would be non-equity, community theater precluded our having to obtain the rights to the play, so we didn’t. The first line-reading rehearsals took place in my livingroom. Then, something happened that would fundamentally change not only the nature of the production, it would deepen a dimension of the play itself.
At this point, I need you to remember something essential to the story that Albee wrought, how it turns on acts of betrayal. Also consider that, in this society, the very nature of something as universal as betrayal can be wholly transformed when experienced by black Americans. Engendered by acts of betrayal intended to cut a soul to the quick, the rage and sense of emasculation Albee intended his characters to feel could – depending on the trigger — easily metastasize exponentially in a black Martha or a black George. Isaiah unwittingly provided that trigger.
My dream of an all-black “Virginia Woolf” died early in the process. One day when we still were in the line-reading phase, Isaiah informed me that – now that he was no longer studying drama at Howard University — he had decided he was leaving DC and heading home to Texas. Seven months ago, in an interview with Soraya McDonald, senior culture writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Isaiah spoke of his time here. “Once I realized I was splitting my time from the Sanctuary Theater, and D.C. Space, and George Washington University’s basement theater programs, I found myself quickly ready to make a move. I was like a year short of graduating. … I ran out of money, and, you know, tried to take side jobs here and there, up and down Georgia Avenue, at the Ibex [go-go club], working there, doing whatever I could. Odd jobs, moving people out of their homes, offices … whatever I could get. But just could not afford to remain, and could not qualify for any funding.” Well, it’s true that we could not afford to pay him much.
You’ve heard the saying before, so you know the show must go on, and on we went. The show, however was to take a completely different turn, and the depth it added to the play was something that even went over my head initially. I already had decided I would keep the dialogue about George and Martha’s imaginary Aryan son; I wanted to use it to depict the self-hatred felt by some blacks. I didn’t realize until later how that would mesh so well with the dynamic introduced by the very presence of the actor who would be my new Nick, Matthew Bretz – who is white.
I cannot remember how Matthew came to me. Looking back, I think Cathy or Michael or Pamela may have suggested him. He read for the part, and I could see he would do just fine. Off-stage drama due to personality clashes led to Pamela’s departure, and she was replaced as Honey by an actress named Edie Kattlekopp – also white. So, now, there was the black, middle-aged couple with serious issues spending an evening entertaining the unsuspecting and alternately bewildered and appalled young white couple with issues of their own. It is not difficult to understand why Nick and Honey would endure such an ordeal when social and political maneuverings are involved; Nick, after all, is a college professor with ambition and Martha, his hostess for the evening, just so happens to be the president’s daughter.
I think it was when we finally moved to the theater for rehearsals that I finally saw what I had not seen before, the degree to which certain interactions within this racial mix might make the impending explosions and implosions seem even more certain, more consequential, more relevant. Watching the actors from the lighting booth, I began to understand what had been added by the change in casting, how – for some audience members – the feelings elicited by the proceedings of the night would not arise if watching a dissimilar staging of the play. When the betrayals that propel the play toward its conclusion begin, the severity of the resulting wounds would suggest the pain being borne by the characters is greater than even Albee could have imagined. Was it hubris on my part to think such a thing?
Consider the character of George alone. Albee puts him through the humiliating experience of having to observe his wife overtly flirt with the younger Nick, to watch as she dances with him in a seductive manner, to suffer through the realization that his alcohol-fueled wife and guest disappear for an attempted sexual dalliance. It is easy to understand how any man might feel in that situation; certainly, Albee did. My George, however, was not just “any man.” This was an accomplished black man in America being disrespected and dismissed in his own home by a white man, with his own wife as a willing accomplice. How would black audience members respond? Would white audience members comprehend the magnitude of the assault on George’s senses and psyche?
Unfortunately, these questions never were formally answered. During the run of the play, I never thought to have an audience discussion after a performance, as is done at times. Comments usually centered on aspects of the staging or the affecting performances (or the wonderful set design by the late Robert “Bobby” Spirdione). Perhaps all that matters is that these questions were answered in the experiences of those sitting in a darkened theater.
Going back to the Times article that started all of this, reporter Michael Paulson quotes Tim Bond, the man who directed the black actress as Martha in 2002 (Andrea Frye, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). “I think the play would work beautifully with any number of approaches to cross-cultural casting.” For us, that proved to be true.