West End play stages shows to all-black audience “free from the white gaze”

A West End theatre will stage shows for an all-black audience to ensure ticket holders will be free from the “white gaze”.

A West End theatre will stage shows for an all-black audience to ensure ticket holders will be free from the “white gaze”, reports the Times.

Slave Play, starring Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, opens at London’s Noel Coward Theatre in June for a three-month run and will offer two performances specifically for an “all black-identifying audience”.

The play’s official website explains: “Black Out nights are the purposeful creation of an environment in which an all-Black-identifying audience can experience and discuss an event in the performing arts, film, athletic, and cultural spaces – free from the white gaze.”

Plans to introduce this practice in the West End have been criticised as “racist” by Amy Gallagher, the mayoral candidate for London’s Social Democratic Party.

She said: “Excluding anyone on the basis of skin colour in this way is racist.

“They seem to be reverting to a critical race theory definition of racism whereby, according to Ibram X Kendi, we need present discrimination, against white people, to make up for past discrimination.”

Black Out performances were pioneered on Broadway by Jeremy O Harris, the playwright behind Slave Play, and are increasingly popular in the world of British theatre, with public funded companies including the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Lyric Hammersmith, and the Almeida Theatre all having hosted them.

Harris told the BBC this week that he was “excited” to be introducing the concept of Black Out performances to the West End. “In most places in the West, poor people and black people have been told that they do not belong inside the theatre,” he said. The playwright added that there was a “litany of places in our country that are generally only inhabited by white people”.

The idea of a black-only performance has been tried before in London, when white people were urged not to attend a Theatre Royal Stratford East performance of race satire Tambo & Bones in 2023. The play’s director, Matthew Xia, argued that it was imperative for Black theatregoers to have “private and safe spaces” away from White people in order to “experience productions that explore complex, nuanced race-related issues.”

In response, Wanjiru Njoya, a senior law lecturer at the University of Exeter who has written a book on racial diversity, said: “If white people did a show and excluded black people for one night only, there would be an outcry.” She also criticised the idea that there is “good racism” and “bad racism”, adding: “They wouldn’t like it if anyone was racist to them. Why do they think it’s OK to be racist to white people?”

Giles Watling, the Tory MP for Clacton, who has five decades of experience working in theatre and chairs the parliamentary all-party group for theatre agreed, described Xia’s approach as “a big mistake” in a world “crying out for unity and amity”.

“Everyone, no matter their sex, race, or colour should be able to access all theatre, otherwise we risk putting people into echo chambers, hearing only one side of any debate,” he said.

Campaign group Don’t Divide Us also said that while it didn’t consider the move to be dangerous, it did believe it to be “a very stupid and philistine one,” adding: “Everyone has a unique response to a work of art. We don’t need segregated audiences for that. And psychological exploration is best done in private therapy, not public theatre,” it added.

Following significant backlash, Arts Council England (ACE) wrote to Theatre Royal Stratford East requesting clarification as to whether the production’s ‘segregationist’ policy breached the conditions attached to the £1.13 million of public funding received by the venue each year as part of the 2023-26 National Portfolio. The letter drew attention to the terms and conditions of the funding agreement, including “having an equal opportunities policy in place at all times and act at all times without distinction and in compliance with all relevant equality legislation”.

The phenomenon of Black-only events is catching-on beyond the world of theatre.

Last year, white lecturers at King’s College London faced were excluded from free tai chi classes advertised “for staff who identify as black/people of colour/global majority” and “aimed at combating chronic stress experienced in the body as a result of racism and systemic oppression”.

The University of Westminster’s student union also recently reserved events for Black students during Black History Month, prompting a similar response from critics.

Social anthropology lecturer at Edinburgh University Dr Neil Thin described the move as “tragic”, and accused the London university of segregation “previously seen in South African and USA education systems”.