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London theatre’s ‘black only’ night faces backlash

The play Tambo & Bones is running for one month but the Theatre Royal Stratford East has requested that the performance on July 5 has an all-black-identifying audience

A theatre’s decision to urge white people not to attend a play is “misguided and a bit sinister”, a former cabinet minister has said.

The Theatre Royal Stratford East, in east London, said white patrons should not go to a performance of Tambo & Bones on July 5 so the audience can enjoy it “free from the white gaze”. The “Black Out” event, one of a run of 29 performances, aims to create a “safe, private” space and allow an “all-black-identifying audience” to explore race relations, organisers said.

The show, described as “a distorted minstrel show meets hip-hop concert”, faces a backlash. Damian Green, the former first secretary of state, told The Times: “Putting on a public show and then asking people of a certain ethnicity not to come is misguided and a bit sinister.”

Wanjiru Njoya, a senior law lecturer at the University of Exeter who has written a book on racial diversity, said: “If white people did a show and excluded black people for one night only, there would be an outcry.” She criticised the idea that there is “good racism” and “bad racism”, adding: “They wouldn’t like it if anyone was racist to them. Why do they think it’s OK to be racist to white people?”

Giles Watling, the Tory MP for Clacton, who has five decades of experience working in theatre and chairs the parliamentary all-party group for theatre, said: “Everyone, no matter their sex, race, or colour should be able to access all theatre, otherwise we risk putting people into echo chambers, hearing only one side of any debate. In a world crying out for unity and amity, I believe this is a big mistake.”

The concept of Black Out nights began on Broadway in 2019 with Slave Play, written by Jeremy O Harris. The idea was brought to London’s Almeida Theatre with his show Daddy.

The director of Tambo & Bones, Matthew Xia, argued it was imperative the theatre “created a space” where black theatregoers could “explore complex, nuanced race-related issues”.

He was backed by Sir Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who described it as “fine” and “lawful”. “If I’m around, I think I might go along to see how it works,” he said.

Tambo & Bones opened in the United States last year and is a satirical take on 300 years of African-American history. Its title characters begin the play trapped as minstrels before becoming hip-hop superstars and later Black Lives Matter activists. Reviews for the US run were lukewarm.

The Theatre Royal Stratford East said the spirit of Black Out nights involved “congregation, celebration and healing”. While the event had been arranged for a black audience, “no one is excluded from attending”, it said.

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