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Attacks on Black Out theatre nights: "Strange, damaging, destructive"

Black Out nights don't exclude anyone, but create a rare environment where people of colour can enjoy art that speaks directly to their own experience, without feeling like a minority under a judgemental white gaze. A slew of opportunistic culture-war attacks by the Conservatives is putting these precious spaces at risk. 

March 23 2024, 12.10pm

On a beautiful cobbled street near Covent Garden stands a small theatre called Seven Dials Playhouse. When I attended the venue on a Monday evening, most (but not all) of the people entering were Black. This was not surprising, nor was it a coincidence. It was one of two “Black Out” nights the theatre is holding for the production of Blue, a play written and starring the American actress and playwright June Carryl. Carryl describes the play as “a conversation between a Black female investigator and a white male veteran police officer who has been involved in the shooting of an unarmed motorist during a traffic stop.”

Since its invention in 2019, Black Out nights have been advertised as evenings when theatres prompt Black people and people of colour to attend, discouraging (though not banning, as sometimes falsely perceived) others from purchasing tickets. The idea is to strategically create an environment where attendees feel comfortable watching and expressing themselves during the production without the constant awareness of the white gaze. “We've done them in the past at Seven Dials for other shows we've had here where thematically it feels appropriate or relevant to host Black Out nights,” says Katie Pesskin, Programme Director at Seven Dials. She notes that, as she is not a person of colour, she also actively avoids attending these nights herself. “We [at Seven Dials], along with the producers of Blue, felt it was appropriate for the play.” 

“It's a couple of nights in this long run where Black and brown identifying people can have a sense of community—where if there is something in that play that makes you laugh out loud or makes you want to say something, you're not having to apologise for it,” adds Michael Matthews, the play’s director.

The concept of Black Out nights was first introduced in 2019 by the American playwright and actor Jeremy O Harris for his production of “Slave Play” on Broadway. It was later adopted by other theatre companies, directors, and producers, including in London, as part of diversity initiatives. But despite its long-standing existence in the theatre world (and other versions of such events being present across the arts both before and after the term's invention), Black Out nights have recently faced backlash. The newfound scrutiny comes after it was announced that when Slave Play has its first-ever run in the UK this year, on two nights of the three months it is on, tickets will only be sold to people who identify as Black. This announcement saw an official spokesperson for the Prime Minister call the practice “concerning,” and columnist-cum-food writer Giles Coren compared the situation to banning “fatties” and “crisp-munchers” from the theatre. 

Coren also suggested that Black people should watch it “on the telly” instead. When you consider that in 2022, an Arts Council study found that only seven percent of theatregoers are Black, Asian, or mixed race, not attending already appears to be the default option for Black people anyway—and Black Out nights are precisely designed to change this.

 “I would love to be in a place where we didn't need Black Out nights,” says Carryl of the news that some disagree with the concept. “That'd be nice, but that's just not the world we live in.” Pesskin agrees. “The long game is that we don't need to do Black Out nights because we don't need to actively reach out to new audiences because they're already engaged with us,” Pesskin says. “That’s not to say that they wouldn't always be a useful way for people to feel safe to experience a story.”

It’s worth noting that often when such events happen, it’s because the show's themes are race-related or particularly appeal to marginalised communities. Noel Coward Theatre, where Slave Play will be showing in the West End, describes the production as a play “about race, identity and sexuality in twenty-first century America” set at “the MacGregor Plantation” where “the Old South is alive and well.” In Blue,the investigator is determined to uncover why the police officer murdered the Black driver. “It was inspired by what happened to George Floyd and the riots at Washington Capitol in 2021,” Carryl explains.

 In June last year, I also attended another Black Out night for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, at Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, which was described at the time as a production that “explores the universal similarities (and glaring differences) facing teenage girls around the world.” Most noticeably, it probed the effects racism and colourism can have on a person’s perceptions of oneself, even from a young age. 

Part of the premise of Black Out nights is that it is easier to watch difficult and potentially triggering stories that might hit close to home in an environment where others are most likely also identifying with your feelings. “I have experienced, on so many occasions, being in a space where you are viewing content that is directly about Black and brown people’s experiences, but by and large, the audience is white or white middle class,” says Myvanwy Evans-Davis, founding director of the cultural communications company Louder Than Words.

“Whether it's theatre, film, visual art, live music, the responses from that majority audience to a production can be really disconcerting and even cause you to overthink your own responses to culturally sensitive content.”

At the “School Girls” Black Out night, I bumped into Bolanle Tajudeen, founding director of Black Blossoms, an art school dedicated to highlighting the creative practices of the BIPOC community. More recently, when I asked her about her experience at the event, she told me that she has “attended Black Out events at different theatres across London before, and it has always been great to be part of an audience who fully relate to the intricacies and nuances of the Black experience, creating a relatable kinship in viewing.” She suggests that institutions consider working with the “many great platforms” already catering to Black audiences “such as We Are Parable, Black Ballad, Da Community, and my organisation, Black Blossoms.”

Working with organisations to encourage Black people to enter spaces they might not otherwise is also integral to Evan-Davis’s practice. “The whole premise of what I do in terms of Louder Than Words is diversifying traditionally white spaces across the arts through diversifying the comms and engagement,” she says, noting that she believes this is particularly important as funding for youth groups and events has decreased dramatically. According to the Mayor of London website over £36 million was cut from annual youth service budgets between 2011-12 and 2021-22, a 44 per cent fall, and almost half of the youth centres across London have closed.

“Arts institutions and arts programming has started to create safe places for young people” to replace these, Evan-Davis notes. She has worked on many projects focussed on engaging hard-to-reach young people, including Circuit, a four-year project from 2013 to 2017 by the Tate, exploring ways to create better access to the arts for 15- to 25-year-olds and "which was all about radically diversifying the gallery sector,” she says. “In that context, Black Out nights, which came later, are a perfect way to be really targeted around [bringing audiences into a place] and a beautifully holistic way to create a very safe space.”

Standing outside Seven Dials Playhouse after the show I attended on Monday night, Carryl told me that the Black Out night I was at was their most attended night so far. The next day, Pesskin also told me that she learned that most people stayed for a little while to speak to the actors after the play, something I saw for myself and have seen at the other Black Out nights I have attended. “The way we talk about Black Out nights makes audiences feel like they're welcome to engage with the show beyond just sitting passively in the audience, and I really love that side of it.” 

But the government's casual assault on Black Out nights could undo the hard work that has been done. “It's such a strange, damaging and destructive stance to take,” says Carryl. She notes that the Prime Minister is a person of colour, and muses it's surprising he would choose to respond in this way. Rishi Sunak has also spoken of his Indian heritage often and prides himself on being Britain's first non-white head of government.

“I'm saying this as an outsider, so I know that there's only so much that I can judge,” she says. “I think it runs the risk of erasing people all over again.” Pesskin also notes that the government’s two cents has created some backlash against the Seven Dials Black Out nights. “There's been some negative coverage of the fact that we are doing Black Out nights, and I see that some people feel excluded by them, but Black Out nights aren't about saying anyone can't come,” she says. “It's about saying to people who sometimes feel they can't come that they definitely can and putting the message out that everyone is welcome.”