DDU open letter in response to ‘Black Out’ performances at Noel Coward Theatre

On 1 March 2024, a variety of media outlets reported on the news that the Noel Coward Theatre in London was planning two special performances of the award-winning Slave Play by Jeremy O Harris. These ‘Black Out’ performances would be reserved for black audiences only.

DDU director Alka Sehgal Cuthbert has written to the owners of the Noel Coward Theatre, Delfont Mackintosh, to denounce the idea. We reproduce the letter below, along with the reply from Delfont Mackintosh and Alka’s follow-up.

Delfont Mackintosh Theatres Limited
Mackintosh House
39-45 Shaftesbury Avenue
London W1D 6LA

Tuesday 5th March 2024


Dear William Village,

I write as Director of Don’t Divide Us – a campaign group dedicated to ensuring that divisive ideas about race are not normalised in Britain’s public institutions and culture.  Your decision to hold two Black Out performances of Slave Tale, has rightly incurred criticism on artistic and ethical grounds. While the playwright Jeremy O’ Harris is entitled to his view that black people may benefit from watching the play free from ‘the white gaze’ – you, as chief executive of a prestigious theatre – are under no obligation to acquiesce to what is legally dubious under the Equality Act which states a service provider must not discriminate on grounds of race in the provision of its services.

Irrespective of the legal situation, you are also in the business of providing a service in the arts – and the arts involve people’s imagination which has no colour. The claim that black people need spaces safe from ‘the white gaze’ is insupportable by either empirical evidence or logic, and, if endorsed, encourages a divisive re-racialisation of our culture. What would a mixed ethnicity family do should they wish to attend on a Black Out night? While the practicalities of ticketing might be resolvable, the fact is that in accepting O’ Harris’s claim, you are normalising the idea that it is possible, and desirable, to treat people differently according to ethnicity. This is racial thinking which is politically and morally anathema to most people. Black Out performances are, in principle, a profound break with Britain’s cultural tradition that, so far, has encouraged a large degree of sharing social experiences across ethnicities and has contributed to comparatively good race relations and social tolerance.

Finally, your own Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Statement aims ‘to foster an ethos of inclusivity where everyone feels respected, valued and supported’. Black Out performances are based on the unproven, not to say offensive, premise that white people somehow pose a threat to their black fellow citizens. This is hardly inclusive or respectful towards white people who, as it happens, make up the majority of Britain’s citizenry. It is also not inclusive or respectful towards ethnic minority citizens who disagree with this political belief system and resent being defined by others as an inherently vulnerable group. When you are breaking your own rules, it is surely time for a rethink?

We would like to remind you that the Noel Coward Theatre has a public duty to provide entertainment and drama for the general public: not a racially segregated one. We hope you will reconsider your decision to provide Black Out performances.

Best Wishes

Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Dear Alka Sehgal Cuthbert,

Thank you for your letter of 5 March.

The producers of SLAVE PLAY released further clarification following their announcement last week:

“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.”

Yours sincerely,

William Village

Dear William Village,

Thank you for your response.

Unfortunately, simply restating your intention to consider how to incorporate black out nights does not address the substance of our concerns, which would involve a consideration of WHY you should incorporate black out nights and WHY you might legitimately decide not to incorporate such an initiative especially as it is, in principle, divisive.

A better, and more genuine effort to increase accessibility to the theatre could include efforts to make adaptations where possible for disabled people – wheelchair spaces, automatic doors, replacing handles for those with forms of dwarfism or disabilities in their hands, signage and so forth. And also you could consider providing touring shows- so those who cannot easily get to London can also have access to theatre.

These are practical options that require thought and resources, which granted, putting on black out night does not require. But then the practical suggestions for increasing inclusion would mean you avoid divisive partisan political beliefs, which some are imposing as if uncontested ‘facts’.

Best Wishes

Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert