A theatre is to put on a performance of a play at which white people are being encouraged not to attend, arguing that for one night the audience should be “free from the white gaze”.
The play, Tambo & Bones, is being performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in east London, from June 16 to July 15. But the theatre has said that white theatregoers should not come to see the show on Wednesday, July 5. That day will be a so-called “Black Out” event, described in the theatre’s publicity as “the purposeful creation of an environment in which an all-Black-identifying audience can experience and discuss an event in the performing arts, film, and cultural spaces – free from the white gaze.”
The show’s director, Matthew Xia, says in the publicity: “Over the last few years, a number of playwrights and directors in the US and the UK have created private and safe spaces for Black theatre-goers to experience productions that explore complex, nuanced race-related issues. I felt that with a play like Tambo & Bones, which unpicks the complexity of Black performance in relation to the white gaze, it was imperative that we created such a space.”
The theatre’s website stresses that “no one is excluded”, but the accompanying promotional material hints strongly that white theatre-goers would not be welcome along on July 5.
The decision to stage a “Black Out” event has angered some people, including prospective London mayoral candidate Samuel Kasumu and Festus Akinbusoye, Britain’s first black police and crime commissioner, who warned that excluding potential audiences based on the colour of their skin set a “poor and dangerous precedent”.
The Bedfordshire commissioner has “strongly urged” both Mr Xia and the theatre to think again and cancel the “Black Out” performance. Speaking to The Telegraph, he said: “Society is richer and stronger when an understanding of each other’s cultures and stories are shared and heard, However, I believe the Black Out concept runs contrary to this education and enrichment ethos.”
He added: “As a lover of theatre performances – Hamilton being a recent one I attended – it was a great experience being able to share this with people of all races and cultures. Despite its majority black or visibly ethnic minority cast, I would not have watched it if it had been a ‘Black Out’ performance.
“This also sets a poor and dangerous precedent, in my view, and is not something I would support. I would strongly urge the organisers of this to seriously reconsider their decision in light of the message it sends, and the precedent it sets.”
And Mr Kasumu, a former No 10 race adviser currently bidding to be the Tory candidate for next year’s London mayoral election, backed Mr Akinbusoye. However, the staging of a “Black Out” event has received the blessing of Sir Trevor Phillips, the broadcaster and former politician, who said: “There is not a ‘ban’ on white attendees. It’s completely lawful. It is one night out of many. There are other performances designated for specific audiences.”
These include a “socially distanced and masked” show, one using British Sign Language, captioned and audio described performances, and a “relaxed environment” version, where those with autistic spectrum conditions are not expected to respect the normal theatre etiquette of remaining in their seats and observing silence.
Of the “Black Out” performance, Sir Trevor added: “The content might be interesting in different ways for audiences from different backgrounds and would probably be reacted to differently by a predominantly black audience. To be honest, if I’m around, I think I might go along to see how it works.”
The decision to stage a “Black Out” night was given a largely critical reception on social media, with one tweeter saying: “If they don’t want me there, I won’t go. I’ll take my $ elsewhere.” Another said: “What do they mean by ‘white gaze’? If I’m watching, it’s not as a ‘white man’, I’m watching as a human being.”
And author Dr Wanjiru Njoya, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Law School, commented: “Ironically England never had legally enforced racial segregation. We missed out on Jim Crow and Apartheid. So our equality law isn’t Jim Crow 2.0 or Apartheid 2.0. It’s our first-time round racial segregation. Trying to catch up with our American and South African friends.”
She added: “If white people did a show and excluded black people for one night only there would be an outcry. This idea that there is ‘good racism’ and ‘bad racism’ is terrible.”
A “Black Out” performance is not new to the UK. Originated by Jeremy O. Harris for a performance of his drama Slave Play on Broadway in the US, the concept was brought to London during the run of his show Daddy at the Almeida Theatre in April last year. He said he felt it important for Black theatregoers to be able to experience sitting in a theatre space “where the whole audience looks like them”.
Tambo & Bones reflects three centuries of African American history through the characters Tambo, a businessman, and Bones, a hustler. It received fairly lukewarm reviews when it opened in the US in 2022, with the New York Times concluding that as a satire on capitalism and racism, it had “little force behind it”.
A spokesman for the Theatre Royal Stratford East told The Telegraph: “Black Out night is an initiative which started on Broadway and has been taken up by several London theatres, the spirit of which is congregation, celebration and healing. Tambo & Bones, staged at Stratford East, is a bold new play, a satire which actively explores race and what it is to be black.
“We have chosen to embrace this initiative for one performance, during the play’s month-long run, as a space for black audiences to experience the play as a community.”
Tickets for the show cost between £10 and £40, although on Monday, June 19, there is a “pay what you can” performance.