On Play(w)Rights / by Kirin McCrory

It's important to observe and analyze power structures, especially in your own field, in the hopes of one day dismantling or overturning them. As a woman, I am painfully aware of the gender hierarchy in the theatre; as a straight white woman, I'm only intellectually aware of the numerous other hierarchies, race and sexuality and disability and on and on. 

I try to stay away from the news these days. True, it makes me feel like an uninformed citizen 99% of the time, which makes me feel guilty, but also I find when I stay away from the news, I am generally happier, less anxious, less hopeless. But of course I still check facebook, and twitter, and of course I still see headlines, and of course in the era of Wokeness, no field is safe from the long-needed call-outs.

Edward Albee has a reputation, and it's one I've always had a problem with. On the one hand, I love his writing style and a handful of his plays; on the other hand, I hate his controlling presence as The Playwright, his unwillingness to let his work expand, his relegation of women and people of color as other to his work. We are barely allowed to participate in it, and only when He deems it acceptable. 

I did a scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as a freshman in college, for a stage combat class. A girlfriend of mine and I decided we were Martha and George respectively, and wouldn't it be a great play to add some physical dialogue into? Our fight scene was great. I was a great George; she, a great Martha. It was only an informal scene, so we didn't have to get permission from the playwright or the Albee estate. We wouldn't have gotten it if we tried. 

On Saturday, skimming through Facebook and trying not to stall on anything that made me feel sad, I hit this headline: Who's Afraid of a Diverse Cast? I couldn't help it: my brain stalled. In 2017, a director and a cast were denied rights to Who's Afraid. The Estate maintains that they never gave the production the rights, and that is true. They also maintain that the director violated any possible contract by advertising the production before he'd retained the rights, which is kind of true (the director said he'd advertised for auditions of the play, but not a production). But the main issue they appeared to have with the production was that a Black actor was playing Nick. The Estate's reasoning was that Nick "was written as a Caucasian, with reference to blonde hair and blue eyes," and that the casting of an interracial couple "added interpretations that were not present in the play." I maintain that if the Albee estate didn't want to look like a bunch of racist assholes, they should have stuck to the first two claims, and not even touched on the hotbed topic of race. But they didn't do that, and consequentially, we are allowed to critique them accordingly.

I have a whole lot of fuck you reactions to get through, so we'll go through them one by one.

Fuck your character descriptions. Unless the play's called Blonde Haired, Blue Eyed Nick, then I don't care. How many White Nicks do you think there've been with brown hair? Brown eyes? Green eyes? Black hair? A quick Google image search tells me there's been plenty. Not a single plot point hinges on Nick's blonde hair and blue eyes. A few lines of dialogue might need a change, but the director had a plan for language changes that was well thought out and totally logical. So unless the climax of the play depends upon "But Nick! Your hair is blonde and your eyes are blue!" then I don't give a fuck (and also that climax would be boring).

Fuck your interpretations. You wrote a play, buddy. A play's a thing that necessarily brings together a different group of people to collaborate each time. Nick is a secondary character. The casting of a Black man brings in the slightest hint of commentary on Nick's blossoming career and George's jealousy, but it don't change the meaning of the whole fucking play. You might believe your play is about how horrible upper middle class white people can be, but part of the problem with modern liberal sensitivities is that white people somehow believe they're doing minorities a favor by protecting them from negative representations. It's a privilege to be represented "negatively" and yet still fill the house with audience every night. Who's Afraid is absolutely about people with horrible sides to them--Black people are allowed to have horrible sides to them, too. The Estate allowed a production with a Black woman playing Martha! Why? Because it's a fucking good part and Black women deserve to get to play it. Casting changes don't render the meaning null and void. It adds spice, it doesn't change the dish. This leads me to my next fuck you point:

Fuck your narrow mind. This play won a Tony Award for Best New Play--if you think that shit is only applicable to white people, you're doing your own work a disservice and calling it artistic integrity. Plays should be specific, but the message has to be damn-near universal. If your play only speaks to a narrow group about a narrow experience, then it didn't deserve to win any bullshit awards. It doesn't deserve to be produced over and over again. You keep yourself down by limiting your work, and on the flip side you make other people feel like shit (you know, the same people who always feel like shit because you won't write plays they're "allowed" to be in and won't allow them in your plays that get produced over and over again). I realize Edward Albee is dead and I am addressing a ghost, but neverthe-fucking-less, as a lesson to all current and future playwrights: don't do that to yourself!

Fuck your power. The only people who do this shit are straight white men. Albee, Beckett, Mamet--those are the three playwrights who come to mind when the issue of 'alternative casting' comes up (also when the issue of 'talented but up their own fucking asses' comes up). Please name me a female playwright whose estate jumps down everyone's throat when they try to change shit. Name me a well-known Black control freak who stalks every production of his shit throughout the country just to make sure everyone's doing it "right." That's right--you can't. The only, the singular example I can think of was recent, when this dude tried to cast a white man to play MLK. And yes, the director was Black, I know that. But Katori Hall didn't get to shut the production down, either, so everybody loses. And Hall coming out and demanding that a Black man play MLK is not an equivalent example, because guess what? Theatre is still predominantly white and male, which means we HAVE to start demanding that women and Black actors and Latinx actors and Indian and Asian and everything but white and male get stage time.

I know a playwright or two who would counter all of this with something like, "But what about the playwright's right to control? Other artists exhibit this level of control over their work--why not us?" Let me reiterate: write a novel, then. What are you doing in the theatre? Imagine the FIELD DAY Shakespeare would get to have if suddenly he had an Estate that got to determine what productions could and couldn't be done of his plays. True, I might never have suffered through that Troilus and Cressida that was a poorly researched Israeli-Palestine Conflict production with an extra sword fight added to it, but that's the risk you take on when you write something for a collaborative art. There are plenty of art forms that don't allow other people to fuck with your art, but the theatre is not one of those forms, and it never will be. 

It's 2017. Can we please, please start acting like it?