Feb. 17 performance initially touted as welcoming 'an all-Black identifying audience'
Changes to how the National Arts Centre is promoting an upcoming night focusing on its Black audience has sparked debate about the federally funded arts venue's approach to inclusivity.
Later in February, which is also Black History Month, the NAC will host the seventh of nine performances of Is God Is, a play by African-American playwright Aleshea Harris centred upon the story of two Black sisters.
The Feb. 17 "Black Out" performance borrows its name from a recent movement to create spaces where Black audience members can — as the movement's website states — experience Black culture "free from the white gaze."
The hope is also to inspire "more representation of Black bodies" onstage and off, the website adds.
The NAC said it wanted to spark conversation and "open the doors for Black-identifying audiences to experience the energy of the NAC with a shared sense of belonging and passion."
But soon a backlash erupted online, with the arts centre being accused of planning a racially segregated show.
Changes came after backlash
The NAC is following in the footsteps of theatres in New York and Toronto that have already held Black Out events.
The website for the Canadian Stage theatre in Toronto states its May 2022 hosting of Is God Is was "an evening exclusive to the Afro/Black community," while the Black Out website says the New York theatre that kicked off the trend three years earlier had all 804 of its seats occupied by "Black-identifying" theatre-goers.
A release last month from the NAC initially used similar language, stating the Feb. 17 performance would welcome "an all-Black identifying audience." Ticketmaster's website said the night was "exclusively" for Black audience members.
Both of those descriptions have been revised, however, following intense pushback on social media. Some called the event "cultural apartheid" and segregation, prompting news coverage in Canada and on American outlets like Fox News.
The NAC's release now states that, in addition to Black audience members, "everyone is welcome at all our shows."
In an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning last week, NAC representatives said the revision was not a direct response to the criticism.
"We saw it as a clarification," said Nina Lee Aquino, the artistic director of the NAC's English Theatre.
The NAC added in a followup email the new wording was meant to clarify "our intention around creating a special evening for Black communities while stating that no one will be turned away at the door."
"Despite the debate," the email continued, "we are getting lots of support from many, and the evening will remain true to the spirit of other Black Out nights."
Black Ottawans have offered a variety of opinions on the backlash and the NAC's response, however.
A performance meant especially for Black-identifying audience members sparked backlash on social media with accusations of segregation. We hear a response from the NAC.
'I wish they had stood their ground'
Comedian Simone Holder said she was exasperated by some of the online discourse, including posts she said reflected anti-Black racism.
She also shook her head at the phrase "cultural apartheid."
"That sounds like when people were angry about wearing masks [and] compared it to the Holocaust," she said. "[There's] a subset of people who've never been told no, have always had things their way."
Limiting, or appearing to limit, things to one group will inevitably inspire ire, she said — but as a Black performer and audience member, she sees the need for dedicated spaces.
"I understand that feeling of intimidation, that feeling of discomfort of walking into a space that honestly wasn't made for you."
The NAC "folded" after "the first bit of pushback," Holder said, noting clearer communication from the start could have headed off the uproar.
"The cynic in me thinks says they were maybe deliberately vague in order to be able to backpedal in case there was backlash," she said. "But I do wish they had stood their ground."
'It created a lot of excitement'
Richard Sharpe isn't attending the Feb. 17 show — not because of the backlash, but because all the seats in the theatre's main orchestra section were already sold out.
"I wish [the NAC] had … the support to be able to stick with their original plan based on how it was worded," said Sharpe, who's now going another night. "Because it created a lot of excitement and desire by members of the Black community to attend an event, more so than I have seen in quite a while."
But Sharpe doesn't fault the arts centre for tweaking the language.
"They need to backtrack without seeming to backtrack," he said. "[The new language] cuts off the people who would be hellbent on taking this to the highest court of public opinion — the media and the Twitterverse."
Sharpe said the episode also highlights the need for more public education on the reasoning behind Black Out events.
"Art spaces have not traditionally been opened or welcoming to Black audiences. They're usually very white," he said. "This was an attempt by the National Arts Centre to remedy that."
"I think people … see it initially as a rejection of whiteness or white people having access, but this is part of work that we do in an anti-oppression, anti-racist approach and perspective."
'Making it worse'
Aquino told Ottawa Morning the Black Out night was intended to "help deepen empathy for other communities" and inspire learning between groups.
But Kaliyah Desormeaux said the NAC's original description of the event may have instead come off as divisive and not in keeping with Black History Month.
"It isn't a month primarily celebrated by Black people, but rather a celebration to be celebrated and acknowledged by all of society," Desormeaux said via email.
"Instead of breaking down this division of who is accepted, who fits where, etc., and making areas accessible for all of society, the NAC [seemed] to be making it worse."
The NAC hasn't adequately explained the "frustrating" change in its messaging either, Desormeaux added, including in a video released on Thursday meant to explain the event's purpose.
"They just seemed to change some words and articulated how the event is no longer minimized to a select audience," Desormeaux said. "They seemed to voice no concern and no accountability."
"It's not about excluding everybody," Rose-Ingrid Benjamin, the NAC's community connections lead, said in the video. "It's about making ourselves more inclusive. We want to build bonds."
Ticketmaster wording 'unfortunate': NAC
Aquino called the wording change a "slight course correct" meant to clarify that it was "always the intent" to open the event to everyone.
"If [people] have a ticket and they would like to go and see the show … then they are of course welcome," she said.
In a followup email Friday, an NAC spokesperson said the use of the word "exclusively" on the Ticketmaster website was incorrect and "very unfortunate" but that, after a screencap made its way on Twitter, the NAC immediately acknowledged the error and changed the text on Ticketmaster.
The run of Is God Is went on sale online to everyone when the 2022-2023 season was announced, the spokesperson added.
2nd night in May
Sharpe said he worries what happened at the NAC will have a negative effect on other arts institutions.
"It just shows how powerful the dominant culture can be in forcing a Black space to get shut down," he said.
The NAC said Black Out nights are not going away, however, with a second one already planned for May.
"I will do whatever it takes to be able to welcome all kinds of communities," Aquino said.
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with files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning
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