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Jeremy O Harris fires back at Rishi Sunak after Downing Street calls Slave Play ‘Black Out’ nights ‘divisive’

The playwright and actor Jeremy O Harris has issued a rebuttal after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak criticised his West End theatre “Black Out” nights.

Slave Play, written by Harris, will run at the Noël Coward Theatre in London from 29 June to 21 September and will star Kit Harington, best known for his role as Jon Snow in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Two nights – known as Black Out nights – will be aimed specifically at an “all-black-identifying audience” that is “free from the white gaze”.

Organisers of Black Out shows say they do not “prevent or preclude anyone” from attending and “nobody” has been turned away in the past.

However, on Thursday (29 February), Sunak’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister 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.

“Obviously, these reports are concerning and further information is being sought. But clearly, restricting audiences on the basis of race would be wrong and divisive.”

Jeremy O Harris (left) and Rishi Sunak (BBC/Getty Images)
Jeremy O Harris (left) and Rishi Sunak (BBC/Getty Images)

Asked if that was an implied threat about withdrawing taxpayer support, the spokesman said: “No, it is a statement of principle that clearly the arts should be inclusive.

“And I think that taxpayers would particularly expect that to be the case when public funding is involved.”

Responding to the statement on Twitter/X, Harris wrote: “Hey 10 Downing Street and Rishi Sunak… there’s literally a war going on… maybe the death of thousands of Palestinian children should be more ‘concerning’ than a playwright attempting to make the West End more inclusive to those who aren’t historically invited there.”

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More London stories - click above

Empire Street Productions, who have brought the show to London, also countered in their own statement, saying: “As the producers of Slave Play in the West End, our intent is to celebrate the play with the widest possible audience. We want to increase accessibility to theatre for everyone.

“The Broadway production conceived of black out nights and we are carefully considering how to incorporate this endeavour as part of two performances in our 13-week run. We will release further details soon. To be absolutely clear, no-one will be prevented or precluded from attending any performance of Slave Play.”

Kit Harington will star in ‘Slave Play’ (PA Archive)
Kit Harington will star in ‘Slave Play’ (PA Archive)

Harris came up with the idea of Black Out nights for his polarising three-act epic in 2019.

A website for the initiative describes the idea as: “The purposeful creation of an environment in which an all-Black-identifying audience can experience and discuss an event in the performing arts, film, athletic, and cultural spaces – free from the white gaze.”

It is not the first time Harris’s work has featured Black Out performances in London – his play, Daddy, staged the nights in 2022.

Last year, producers of the satire Tambo & Bones allocated one night during its month-long run at Theatre Royal Stratford East for Black audiences to enjoy the experience in a safe place free from racialising dynamics.

“Over the last few years, a number of playwrights and directors in the US and the UK have created private and safe spaces for Black theatregoers to experience productions that explore complex, nuanced race-related issues,” Tambo & Bones director Matthew Xia explained on the Stratford East website.

“I felt that with a play like Tambo & Bones, which unpicks the complexity of Black performance in relation to the white gaze, it was imperative that we created such a space.”

Slave Play will also star Heartstopper’s Fisayo Akinade, Brassic actor Aaron Heffernan and Olivia Washington, the daughter of two-time Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington.

In addition to Black Out nights, every Wednesday from 26 June at 10am there will be 30 tickets released for the performance priced at £1, while on the morning of each performance there will be 10 seats available at £20 each.

Tickets are now on sale at www.slaveplaylondon.com.