National Arts Centre rescinds much-criticized plan for ‘Black-only’ performance

The Feb. 17 performance is now being advertised as an event that ‘will welcome Black audiences’ without specifying that non-Black patrons should make other plans

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Canada’s National Arts Centre appears to have backtracked on a much-criticized plan to stage an event that would have screened theatregoers by race.

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Earlier this month, the centre announced that a Feb. 17 performance of the play Is God Is would be a “Black Out night” limited exclusively to an “all-Black identifying audience.”

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The federally funded body said it would have people self-identify based on the honour system.

“No one will be turned away at the door; there will be no checkpoints for Black Out Night ticket holders and no questions will be asked about anyone’s identity, race or gender,” the centre wrote in a statement last week to journalist Jon Kay, an occasional National Post contributor.

Over the weekend, the National Arts Centre’s website was quietly changed to open up admissions to other Canadian ethnicities.

The Feb. 17 performance is now being advertised as an event that “will welcome Black audiences” without specifying that non-Black patrons should make other plans.

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The show’s description on Ticketmaster was also altered to remove the word “exclusively.” It’s now just a “performance for Black-identifying audiences.”

The idea of Black Out nights comes from Broadway, where a 2019 performance of Slave Play was opened only to audience members of African heritage. According to Slave Play creator Jeremy O. Harris, the idea was to free Black audience members from the “white gaze.”

U.S. law is rather explicit in making it illegal to limit a service only to members of a specific race. The inaugural Black Out night differed from its National Arts Centre equivalent in that it never actually said that non-Black people couldn’t come.

Instead, the performance was made an invite-only event with tickets offered to Black patrons and organizations. “We did not prevent or preclude anyone from attending the BLACK OUT performances … nobody was turned away,” reads an official website.

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The idea of Black Out nights has since gained some traction among Western theatre companies, such as Toronto’s Theatre Pass Muraille. “If someone self-identifies as a non-Black person and demands to enter the room, a member of our staff will be present to chat with this person,” reads the company’s official guidelines on how it screens non-Black patrons from the events.

The Feb. 17 performance of Is God Is was to be the first time in the National Arts Centre’s 54-year history that it would stage an event open only to self-identifying members of a specific ethnicity.

The legality of such a plan has never been tested before a Canadian court, but there’s a good chance that the event as initially advertised could warrant a challenge under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

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“Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin,” reads the opening line of the Human Rights Code.

Nevertheless, the National Arts Centre is certainly not alone among federal bodies that have begun introducing plans to target programming and funding based explicitly on ethnic identity. The federally funded Canada Research Chair program, for instance, now adheres to an identity quota position that screens applications based on ethnic or sexual identity.

A Monday statement by the National Arts Centre made no mention of its about-turn on the Feb. 17 Black Out Night, but touted that its schedule of February events for Black History Month would be “a welcoming and respectful space for everyone.”

“Everyone is welcome at all our shows,” it read.


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