The Theatre Royal Stratford East is running Tambo & Bones, a play that explores the African American experience, from 16 June to 15 July. The Black Out performance for an “all-black-identifying audience” on 5 July has already sold out, but some have been critical of the plans.
Tambo & Bones, written by Dave Harris, asks challenging questions about race and exploitation so Theatre Royal Stratford East has decided to offer one dedicated performance for Black audiences to watch together.
For decades, Theatre Royal Stratford East proclaims it has famously championed diversity in all its forms both on and off stage, while also bringing communities together. In recognition of the existence of social barriers that still exist for theatregoers and wider society, the theatre puts on various dedicated performances – from “pay what you can” nights which increase accessibility by ensuring audiences are not financially excluded, they have also acknowledged that theatre is white-centred. They argue that the Black Out performance is part of addressing that imbalance, offering a night to centre and celebrate the Black experience.
Matthew Xia, director of Tambo & Bones, argued it was imperative the theatre “created a space” where black theatregoers could “explore complex, nuanced race-related issues”. Within this initiative, the theatre aims to create a “safe, private” space to allow an “all-black-identifying audience” to explore race relations “free from the white gaze”.
Crucially, the Theatre Royal Stratford East said while the event had been arranged for a black audience, “no one is excluded from attending”.
Black Out nights
Black Out nights within the theatre industry are not new or unheard of – A Black Out night was introduced by American playwright Jeremy O Harris’ 2019 show Slave Play on New York’s Broadway. He also hosted a Black Out event last year for his production of Daddy at the Almeida Theatre in North London. These were also held on the basis of interrogating complex and challenging themes around race.
Next month, the Lyric in Hammersmith is hosting a similar event for its production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.
The Black Out night has been subject to widespread media attention since the weekend, with those on the right criticising the idea. GB News presenter Nana Akua has branded the idea “racist”. She asserted let’s imagine if you will, a theatre performance that urged black people not to come. Race baiters like Dr Shola would be out in force to cry racism. So why is it allowed the other way round?”.
Wanjiru Njoya, a senior law lecturer at the University of Exeter echoed Akua as she criticised the idea that there is “good racism” and “bad racism”. “If white people did a show and excluded black people for one night only, there would be an outcry,” she claims.
Moreover, Festus Akinbusoye, Britain’s first black police and crime commissioner, also said it was a “mistake” which “sets a bad precedent”. “I welcome anything that’s going to make our public spaces more diverse that also encourages the sharing of cultural experiences…what I do not welcome is anything that welcomes that division which is my view it potentially does.”
However, Nadia Fall, artistic director at Theatre Royal Stratford East, argues that Black Out nights are vital for centering and including Black people. “I’m not a black person” she said. But, as a human being, I understand there are some occasions where a community wants to come together to reflect or celebrate and so on”.
“It’s not just the only sort of performance that we do to welcome different communities in: for deaf and disabled audiences, we have access performances, relaxed performances, British Sign Language performances.”
“No one is excluded from attending and during the course of the show’s run we want audiences from all backgrounds to enjoy and discuss this thought-provoking new play. Sadly, there are some who deliberately and willfully choose to spin misleading headlines whipping up a “culture war” frenzy and taking away from the intention for which these nights are designed. I hope that most people will take this initiative in the spirit it is intended”.
Moreover, Sir Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has backed the director as he describes it as “fine” and “lawful”. “If I’m around, I think I might go along to see how it works,” he said.
The decision for Theatre Royal Stratford East to hold a Black Out night symbolises a powerful move for including Black people and constructing safe spaces for the Black community within the Arts and Culture sector. Diversity and inclusion are vital elements for societal progress, centering Black people and their experiences does not equate racism, but the very opposite.