This question has been asked and answered in the press release for Tambo & Bones, a new show produced by Actors Touring Company appearing at Theatre Royal Stratford East during the summer.
A single performance has been designated as a Black Out night, which “is 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 phenomenon was originally thought up by Jeremy O Harris when Slave Play ran on Broadway in the heady days before the pandemic wrought havoc on theatres around the world. He subsequently exported it to London when Daddy transferred to the Almeida.
Harris’s underlying rationale was a belief that, “it was important for black theatregoers to be able to experience sitting in a theatre space where the whole audience looks like them.”
It could reasonably be argued that he was picking up on the sensational denouement to fellow American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview (coincidentally featuring the same leading actor in London as Tambo & Bones, Rhashan Stone) which proved popular on both sides of the Atlantic at around the same time.
In Fairview, the question was whether the writer’s intention was to make black audience members feel more comfortable or white ones obtain a deeper understanding what it is like to be on the wrong side of racial prejudice.
Directing selected theatrical performances towards specific categories of playgoer is a tried and tested tradition, to the point where we often don’t even notice. For example, for decades, many shows have allocated at least one performance to be signed for the benefit of those who struggle with hearing. Relaxed performances are also becoming increasingly prevalent and popular.
Transferring the focus to black audiences is new, at least in the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that in South Africa during the apartheid years, there was audience segregation in a far more extreme and cruel fashion, although ironically even the downtrodden may have felt safer in the absence of potential agents provocateurs.
While few readers would compare the situation in the UK today with that heinous regime, the proposition that many prospective black theatregoers are scared off by worries about sharing auditoria with white enthusiasts is most concerning.
The performance of Tambo & Bones on Wednesday 5 July is not going to be strictly segregated, since, “while this performance has been arranged for black audience members specifically, no one is excluded from attending.” However, the producers’ intentions are clear.
It will be fascinating to see whether this fashion takes off. One might suggest that one of the primary reasons for producing racially charged metatheatrical satires is to educate those from other racial groupings in the hope that they may have a better understanding and behave more generously in future.
This may also prove a hard sell if members of the anti-woke brigade mount their high horses and sneeringly attack an event at which they are very much not welcome, despite the fact that, if past practice is anything to go by, their preference would be to demean it without the bother of finding out what the play is all about.
Indeed, you could argue that there is a strong case to be made for the company inviting the Home Secretary, immigration minister and various of their other Cabinet colleagues to a night out in east London, where they might undergo an educational transformation.
We shall have to see how the world and audiences react to this experiment, but it could prove popular and also be the start of a much wider movement.
There may be many women who would jump at the opportunity to attend certain plays in female-only audiences, while LGBT and other groupings might also appreciate the chance to watch some shows in what they might very reasonably regard as a private and safe space.
The same could apply to an assortment of victims of crimes, who might benefit greatly from an organised, cathartic opportunity to see their own problems explored in a safe space.