Posted on March 1, 2024

West End Play Tells White Theatregoers They Aren’t Welcome as It Hosts All-Black Audience Nights

Danya Bazaraa and Tom Cotterill, Daily Mail, February 28, 2024

A ‘controversial’ theatre production about race, identity and sexuality in twenty-first century America will put on two nights for black audiences to watch the play ‘free from the white gaze’.

Slave Play, starring Kit Harington who is best known for his role as Jon Snow in the HBO series Game of Thrones, is coming to the Noël Coward theatre in London’s West End from 29 June to 21 September.

But on the evenings of 17 July and 17 September, the theatre will be open to an ‘all-Black identifying audience’.

One senior Tory MP, who did not want to be named, raised questions over the decision to bar white people from the show, telling 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.’

But playwright Jeremy O Harris told BBC Sounds he was ‘so excited’ to put on nights in the West End where tickets were only sold to people who identified as black. He said ‘it is a necessity to radically invite them in with initiatives that say ‘you’re invited’. Specifically you.’

Slave Play, written by Jeremy O Harris, was a huge hit when it debuted in 2019 but it was also controversial, with a petition to have it cancelled.

According to the Guardian, some argued the play – surrounding three interracial couples attempting to reinvigorate their relationships while role-playing being on a plantation – made light of chattel slavery and left at least one audience member ‘offended and traumatised’.

Despite the criticism, Slave Play received 12 Tony nominations in 2021.

Playwright O Harris told BBC Sounds yesterday he was ‘so excited’ to put on nights in the West End where tickets were only sold to people who identified as black.

‘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.

‘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.’

Asked if it didn’t make him uncomfortable that in turn it was telling white people they weren’t allowed in the space, he responded: ‘There are a litany of places in our country that are generally only inhabited by white people, and nobody is questioning that, and nobody is saying that by inviting black audiences here you are uninvited.

‘The idea of a Black Out night is to say this is a night that we are specifically inviting black people to fill up the space, to feel safe with a lot of other black people in a place where they often do not feel safe.’

Asked if the theatre felt different that way, he said: ‘100%. Let’s not act that we do not know that culturally white audiences and black audiences respond to things differently.’

He spoke of a history in black American audiences where a ‘call and response’ was common, for example, agreeing that it can be a ‘noisier experience.’

‘White audiences in the west have decided to stay quiet and respond with politeness to anything they see in front of them,’ he said, though he said it wasn’t always that way in the past.

O Harris spoke about how for Slave Play, they would have over 200 tickets a week that would cost just £1 in a bid to be accessible to those from poorer backgrounds.

He said he himself never saw a Broadway play until a year before he went to Broadway as it was not financially feasible for him when he was younger.

As Slave Play is set for the stage this summer, writer O Harris has criticised the casting of celebrities for theatre performances.

He told the Guardian: ‘There’s a lot of people making theatre now who think commercial theatre can only be made if you have someone who’s on the biggest TV show or the biggest movie ever, with the marquee name as the reason for you to buy the ticket. I don’t believe in that.

‘It’s something that takes away from great theatre because people treat it like a Disney World attraction, where the play is background to the amusement of seeing their favourite celebrity in front of them.’

It’s not the first time theatre bosses have faced a backlash for so-called ‘Black Out’ events.

In May last year, London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East was blasted after it said white patrons should not go to a performance of Tambo & Bones on July 5.

The theatre claimed it was so the audience could enjoy the play ‘free from the white gaze’ and that it was about creating a ‘safe private’ space to allow an ‘all-black-identifying audience’ to enjoy the show.

But former cabinet minister Damian Green slammed the move, telling The Times: ‘Putting on a public show and then asking people of a certain ethnicity not to come is misguided and a bit sinister.’

While Giles Watling, the Tory MP for Clacton, branded the decision a ‘big mistake’.

The director of Tambo & Bones, Matthew Xia, however said it was important theatre created a space where black theatregoers could ‘explore complex, nuanced race-related issues’.