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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Lydia Chantler-Hicks and Nicholas Cecil

Downing Street calls Black-only theatre performances 'concerning' and 'wrong' as row deepens

Downing Street has described plans to hold West End theatre performances solely for Black audiences as “concerning” and “wrong”.

Slave Play, starring Kit Harington, is set to open at London’s Noel Coward Theatre in June for a three-month run.

On two nights in July and September, it will be open to an “all-black identifying audience” to allow them to watch “free from the white gaze”.

But the move, which comes after the theatre industry was criticised for a lack of diversity among its audiences, has sparked criticism - with Downing Street the latest to weigh in on Thursday afternoon.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The PM is a big supporter of the arts and he believes that the arts should be inclusive and open to everyone, particularly where those arts venues are in receipt of public funding.

“These reports are concerning and further information is being sought.

Kit Harington is set to star in Slave Play during its West End run (Dave Benett)

“But clearly restricting audiences on the basis of race would be wrong and divisive.”

It emerged that Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, has written to Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer about the theatre performances.

“At a time when we see domestic racial tensions running high, why a west end theatre thinks it is acceptable to encourage racial segregation is beyond me,” said Ms Aiken.

“The Arts should be about bringing people from all backgrounds tougher and ensuring any form of discrimination is called out. I hope the production and theatre promoters reverse their decision and apologise.”

But Slave Play playwright Jeremy O Harris said he was “so excited’ by the “Black Out nights” initiative, which he says will allow Black people “to feel safe in a place where they often do not feel safe”.

Playwright Jeremy O Harris (Dave Benett)

He told BBC Sounds: “For me, as someone who wants and yearns for black and brown people to be in the theatre, who comes from a working-class environment, who wants people who do not make six figures to feel like theatre is a place for them, it is a necessity to radically invite them in with initiatives that say, ‘You’re invited. Specifically you.’”

“There are a litany of places in our country that are generally only inhabited by white people, and nobody is questioning that, and nobody is saying that by inviting black audiences here you are uninvited.

“The idea of a Black Out night is to say this is a night that we are specifically inviting black people to fill up the space, to feel safe with a lot of other black people in a place where they often do not feel safe.”

It is understood that invitation-only tickets for the shows will be distributed through Black community groups.

Every Wednesday 30 tickets priced at £1 and above will be sold.

The concept was pioneered in New York for the original 2019 production of O Harris’s Slave Play, which explores race, identity and sexuality in 21st-century America

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