'Wrong and divisive': No. 10 condemns theatre 'Black Outs' after West End show announces exclusive performances

29 February 2024, 20:19 | Updated: 1 March 2024, 00:24

On Thursday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak&squot;s official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister is a big supporter of the arts and he believes that the arts should be inclusive and open to everyone.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister is a big supporter of the arts and he believes that the arts should be inclusive and open to everyone. Picture: Alamy
Jasmine Moody

By Jasmine Moody

Downing Street has hit out at the idea of a black-only audience for some nights of a West End theatrical production, calling the concept "wrong and divisive".

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Slave Play, which is about race, identity and sexuality in twenty-first century America stars Game of Thrones star Kit Harington and will come to the Noël Coward theatre in London’s West End from June 29 to September 21.

On the evenings of 17 July and 17 September, the theatre will be open to an 'all-Black identifying audience' that is "free from the white gaze".

In addition, every Wednesday from June 26 at 10am there will be 30 tickets released for the performance priced at £1, while on the morning of each performance there will be 10 seats priced at £20 each.

Organisers of Black Out shows say they do not "prevent or preclude anyone" from attending and "nobody" has been turned away in the past.

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

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

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".

On Thursday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister is a big supporter of the arts and he believes that the arts should be inclusive and open to everyone, particularly where those arts venues are in receipt of public funding.

"Obviously, these reports are concerning and further information is being sought.

"But clearly, restricting audiences on the basis of race would be wrong and divisive."

Asked if that was an implied threat about withdrawing taxpayer support, the spokesman said: "No, it is a statement of principle that clearly the arts should be inclusive.

"And I think that taxpayers would particularly expect that to be the case when public funding is involved."

A statement from the producers to the PA news agency said: "Our intent is to celebrate the play with the widest possible audience.

"We want to increase accessibility to theatre for everyone.

"The Broadway production conceived Black Out nights and we are carefully considering how to incorporate this endeavour as part of two performances in our 13-week run.

"We will release further details soon. To be absolutely clear, no one will be prevented or precluded from attending any performance of Slave Play."

Defending the staging, Emily In Paris star Harris wrote on X, formerly Twitter: "I don't have to imagine the roles were reversed in my grandparents' lifetimes AND WORSE.

"I'm not even saying BLACKS ONLY I'm saying I'm inviting black ppl first! They can bring their white friends or lovers if they want. There's no colour bar. But one existed in the UK recently!"

In 2019, all 804 seats of Golden Theatre's staging were used by black-identifying theatregoers, according to the Black Out initiative.

Earlier, Playwright Jeremy O’Harris defended the decision to have Black Out nights, saying it gives Black people a place "to feel safe where they often do not feel safe".

"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," he told the BBC

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

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

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

Other political figures have criticised the concept.

Read more: Rishi Sunak says he's 'living proof' the UK isn't racist after Lee Anderson refused to apologise for Islamist claim

Read more: British countryside is a 'racist and colonial' white space, wildlife charities claim

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."

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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