‘Black people have been told they don’t belong at the theatre’: Playwright defends ‘black-only’ nights at West End show

29 February 2024, 06:59

Playwright Jeremy O’Harris has defended the 'black only' nights
Playwright Jeremy O’Harris has defended the 'black only' nights. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

A playwright has defended performances for black audiences at a West End show saying it gives black people a place ‘to feel safe where they often do not feel safe’.

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On the evenings of 17 July and 17 September the theatre will be open to an 'all-Black identifying audience' to allow black audiences to watch the play 'free from the white gaze'.

Playwright Jeremy O’Harris has defended the decision, saying “it is a necessity to radically invite them in with initiatives that say 'you're invited'. Specifically you.”

“One of the things we have to remember is that people have to be radically invited into a space to know that they belong there and in most places in the west, poor people and black people have been told that they do not belong inside the theatre.

Read more: West End play criticised over 'Black Out' performances, which protects theatre goers from 'the white gaze'

He told the BBC: "For me, as someone who wants and yearns for black and brown people to be in the theatre, who comes from a working class environment, who wants people who do not make six figures to feel like theatre is a place for them, it is a necessity to radically invite them in with initiatives that say 'you're invited'. Specifically you."

The play, about race, identity and sexuality in twenty-first century America will be exclusively performed for a black-only audience on certain days to protect them from "the white gaze".

Slave Play, starring Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, will come to the Noël Coward theatre in London’s West End from June 29 to September 21.

Anyone will be able to watch the play, except on the evenings on July 17 and September 17, which will only be performed for an "all-Black identifying audience".

Black audience-only performances, also known as Black Outs, aim to get Black people into the theatre - an otherwise white-dominated space.

According to The Upcoming, the Black Out nights are "designed to provide an exclusive environment for Black-identifying audiences to witness and discuss the performance free from the white gaze.

"This initiative follows a successful Broadway precedent, aiming to celebrate and reflect upon the diverse and complex history of Black narratives in theatre".

Slave Play, starring Game of Thrones Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, will come to the Noël Coward theatre in London’s West End from June 29 to September 21.
Slave Play, starring Game of Thrones Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, will come to the Noël Coward theatre in London’s West End from June 29 to September 21. Picture: Alamy

However, there has been criticism over the initiative.

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A senior Conservative MP, who did not want to be identified, told MailOnline: "I understand the subject matter of the show may have particular resonance for some but would simply question the legality of this?

"In other circles it would be illegal and racial discrimination. I don't understand why this isn't."

Written by Jeremy O’Harris, Slave Play was widely praised when it debuted in 2019, even after a petition to have the production cancelled.

Those who argued against the play said it made light of chattel slavery; one audience member was left "offended and traumatised."

Even so, the play received 12 Tony nominations in 2021.

The play, written by Jeremy O Harris, has received 12 Tony nominations in 2021.
The play, written by Jeremy O Harris, has received 12 Tony nominations in 2021. Picture: Alamy

Black Out nights for other theatre productions have also caused a stir.

In May 2023, London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East was criticised for saying white people should not go to a performance of Tambo and Bones on July 5.

The Black Out was to ensure an "all black-identifying audience" could have a "safe space" to enjoy the performance, according to the theatre.

Former cabinet minister Damian Green heavily disagreed with the concept: "Putting on a public show and then asking people of a certain ethnicity not to come is misguided and a bit sinister," he said.

The play's director, Matthew Xia, said Black Out performances are important so that the theatre can create a space where Black theatregoers could "explore complex, nuanced race-related issues."

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