Why are Black audiences-only London theatre nights causing a scandal?

The original version of this article was written in May 2023, specifically to address the fuss the right-wing press made over the fact that the play ‘Tambo & Bones’ at Theatre Royal Stratford East had a ‘Black Out’ performance – that is to say a one-off performance aimed at a Black or Black-identifying crowd.

However, in February 2024 an almost identical furore was caused when the US playwright Jeremy O Harris – who invented the concept of Black Out performances – went and talked about the concept on Radio 4 with regards to the long-awaited West End transfer of his hit ‘Slave Play’, which has led to huffy responses from The Daily Mail, GB News, and all the worst people on social media.

As grumblings about Black Out nights would seem likely to be a recurring phenomenon, we’ve updated this piece into a more general explainer.

Tambo and Bones, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2023
Photo: The Other RichardTambo & Bones

What is a Black Out night?

It’s a performance of a theatre show aimed at a Black or Black-identifying audience.

What does ‘Black-identifying’ mean?

Obviously some people have been silly about this, but the basic point is it’s meant to be inclusive of mixed-race audience members who identify as Black.

What is the point of Black Out nights?

Put simply, they take place at plays by Black playwrights that are telling Black stories. However, theatres in the US and UK tend to be very white spaces. Crudely speaking, the Black Out nights are a drive to get Black audiences to the theatre, a concerted attempt to put these specific plays in front of the community the playwright was addressing when they wrote the play, and simply to experiment with a different audience dynamic.

Can non-Black audience members attend Black Out nights?

Harris invented the nights, and has been clear that he feels it’s fine for Black attendees to bring along non-Black friends and partners. Nobody is going to block admission to anyone. However there are literally dozens of non-Black Out performances so why would you to a Black Out night if nobody in your group is Black unless you’re just being weird.

Have all Black Out nights been controversial?

Absolutely not – for the most part the mainstream rightwing press doesn’t know or care what’s going on in UK theatre. Black Out nights are reasonably common and normally cause zero outrage – the Yard’s ‘Samuel Takes a Break…’ had one in February 2024 without there being any comment.

Why have these ones caused a backlash?

Culture wars bollocks, basically, and because they got noticed by people who don’t go to the theatre – in the case of ‘Slave Play’ because Harris went on Radio 4 to promote it. It plays into white grievance culture and is good for engagement from people who were clearly never in a million years going to see a controversial avant-garde play about interracial couples indulging in master-servant roleplay. The GB News story on ‘Slave Play’ has reported that it has banned ‘white people’ which speaks volumes about where it’s coming from, given that there are more than two ethnicities.

Should Black people come to the Black Out performances rather than ‘regular’ performances?

If you’re Black and think it would be neat to see ‘Slave Play’ with an all or mostly Black audience, the Black Out show could be for you. If you’re not Black, or are but aren’t fussed with the idea of a Black Out performance, then there are plenty of other dates you can attend. It’s really not that complicated, and the fuss is utterly absurd.

‘Slave Play’ is at the Noël Coward Theatre, Jun 29-Sep 21. The Black Out performances are on Jul 17 and Sep 17.

Read more: The top London theatre shows in London according to our critics.