February 29, 2024 - 5:00pm

When we think of racial segregation we tend to think of Jim Crow America or apartheid South Africa; we don’t associate it with London’s West End in the twenty-first century. But we live in strange times, and a play called Slave Play, about race in twenty-first century America, will host two performances exclusively for black audiences in the UK this year. At the NoĂ«l Coward theatre on July 17 and September 17, Slave Play, which features the Game of Thrones actor Kit Harrington, will only admit black people into performances of the play to protect them from the “white gaze”. 

It should go without saying that a play, a book, a song, a film, or any other kind of culture, should be open to anyone irrespective of their racial or ethnic background. The idea that black people can confidently enjoy and talk about a work only in the presence of other black people, moreover, is condescending at best and racist at worst. It treats them as fragile and homogenous. 

The author of the play, Jeremy O. Harris, loves the decision. He is “so excited” and has said “it is a necessity to radically invite them in with initiatives that say ‘You’re invited’. Specifically you.’” There is a conversation to be had about widening access to the theatre. We are living through inflation and a cost of living crisis. Watching a play is a luxury that many people can’t afford, and this is not helped by the fact that most plays are mediocre. 

But there’s a big difference between widening access to the materially disadvantaged and explicitly setting aside performances for groups of people based on their race. One is about making culture accessible to a wider range of people; the other is an ideological agenda that subjects a British audience to some of the most toxic aspects of America’s never-ending race drama.

What makes this all the more strange is that the poster says it is reserving spaces on those two nights for “an all-Black-identifying audience.” Does this mean that white people could identify as black just to see the play on those nights? Will the security guards and theatre staff scrutinise the fingernails of anyone who doesn’t look black? Will they evaluate how curly their hair is? Identity politics is not just morally wrong. It is also silly: this is why it is so ripe for mockery, as the recent Oscar-nominated film American Fiction demonstrates.

America and South Africa were able to successfully destroy institutionalised segregation in their respective countries. But cultural segregation should not be legitimised by the use of sweet-sounding progressive language. All this talk of “inclusivity” and “protection” masks what is in fact quite sinister: reintroducing into mainstream society the toxic idea that we should divide people into racial categories.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which will be published by Atlantic in June.