It’s depressing in the extreme how inevitable the fuss is over the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s new play, Tambo & Bones. Specifically over one performance (one), called a Black Out.
The play, by poet Dave Harris, is about two black men stuck in a minstrel show, who aim to get out and get rich as hip hop superstars. When it played off-Broadway, it was described by one critic in an admiring review as “a racially charged metatheatrical satire”. As part of the 29-date run in London, on July 5 the theatre will host a single performance at which they have expressed the hope that the audience can be entirely black, to allow them to enjoy it “free from the white gaze”. It’s a practice that started in the US, and has been described as “healing” for the audiences of colour who have attended the events.
Legally, as is right, the theatre cannot enforce a ban on any group of course, so what they have said is: “While this performance has been arranged for Black audience members specifically, no one is excluded from attending.”
Cue the harrumphing, and some irresponsibly misleading headlines. The former cabinet minister Damian Green, a white man, called the event (one night, remember, out of 29) “misguided and a bit sinister”. Wanjiru Njoya, a law lecturer at the University of Exeter, described it as “racist to white people”.
Respectfully, I disagree. Racism, as I understand it, stems from the assumption of superiority of one race over another, and there are small and large reverberations of that, from micro-aggressions to systematic enslavement. I don’t think I’d call this event an act of racism. I think I’d call it an opportunity for members of an undeniably oppressed group to experience something together that has been made with them in mind, and explore the questions around it without having to worry about offending or hurting the feelings of members of the group that has, again undeniably, oppressed them or their antecedents. Those white people who were thinking of seeing the show in the first place, most of whom are probably broadly supportive, can go and see it on any other night, among a mixed audience, and have their own experience, and form their own view.
I cannot speak for the experience of black people in the theatre, clearly, because I’m not one. But in this country theatre has historically been written and made largely by white people, and stuffed with majority white cultural references. That doesn’t mean that people of colour don’t understand it; it does mean that their own specific cultural references are, in the main, absent. Because I’m white, I don’t notice the lack; they do.
If white people feel momentarily a bit left out by this one night event, so be it. Why do we mind so much? It’s never a bad thing to appreciate something, even something tiny, of the experience of another person. Acknowledging that this event might be necessary allows us the luxury of growth – typically, we still manage to get something out of it, even as we’re left out.
The theoretical ideal, of course, is that everyone should have equal access to everything at all times and that we shouldn’t need this kind of thing at all. But that only works in practice if the playing field is level. And it isn’t. Until it is, people who have experienced and continue to experience oppression and marginalisation due to characteristics such as skin colour will need opportunities like this to come together and discuss, feel and react with freedom. I applaud it. And on July 5, I’ll do something else.