Table of Contents

What if William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of Macbeth, who usurped the throne of Scotland at the urging of his wife, were performed with less gloom and doom? What if, instead, the play were infused with modern music, dance, and a fresh interpretation of Lady Macbeth as an “ambitious Black woman” with a performance designed to elevate “Black female power, femininity, and desire”?

This version of the play is called “Macbeth in Stride” and is currently being performed by the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University’s Loeb Drama Center. Unfortunately, some Harvard students and members of the general public interested in seeing this classic play with a unique twist and social commentary may be out of luck. One upcoming show on Oct. 29 is billed as a “Blackout” performance, “designated . . . to be an exclusive space for Black-identifying audience members,” according to the event page

“For our non-Black allies, we appreciate your support in making this a completely Black-identifying evening,” it reads. “We invite you to join us at another performance during the run.”

While the “Blackout” performance of “Macbeth in Stride” will not be the only showing of the play (which runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 14), for Harvard to designate a performance as available only to students, faculty, or other patrons of a specified skin color appears to run afoul not only of state and federal laws, but also Harvard’s own commitment to fostering an inclusive environment for every member of the university community. 

The American Repertory Theater, which serves as the professional theater on Harvard’s campus, is housed in a university building, and draws performers from around the world “to develop musicals, plays, and operas inspired and enriched by its partnerships with faculty members and Schools across the University,” according to its website. [Emphasis added.]

As an integral part of Harvard, the American Repertory Theater is subject to the university’s legal obligations and policies. Under federal law, excluding university students, faculty, and staff from educational enrichment opportunities based on race is forbidden. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids all institutions receiving federal financial assistance, whether public or private, from discriminating “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.” Colleges and universities like Harvard that accept payments from students who receive federal financial aid are covered by Title VI. Massachusetts law also bars discrimination based on race in places of public accommodation, defined as “any place . . . which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public.” This includes performance spaces such as theaters.

Under federal law, excluding university students, faculty, and staff from educational enrichment opportunities based on race is forbidden.

The American Repertory Theater’s decision to restrict a showing of “Macbeth in Stride” only to audience members who identify as members of a certain race or ethnicity is also problematic because it appears to run afoul of the theater company’s own policies, which profess dedication to “making a welcoming and accessible space for people of any identity, background, or ability” — which is no surprise, as Harvard’s student body has become more diverse than ever.

Hosting a racially segregated performance where people with the wrong racial background are specifically told that they are not welcome flies directly in the face of that commitment.

Just last week, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania held an event limiting attendance to “people who identify as individuals of color.” 

As our colleague Aaron Terr wrote in FIRE’s letter to the liberal arts college:

We understand that issues of race and social justice have occupied a prominent place in the discourse on many college campuses and that colleges have a legitimate interest in fostering productive student discussion around these issues. Institutions of higher education have a variety of options to facilitate such discussion. Segregation is not among them. It is settled law that colleges like Etown—regardless of purpose or intent—may not deprive students or faculty of educational resources or opportunities on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

The same holds true at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. 

Even if the theater company believes in its own good intentions, history is full of misguided efforts to deny people benefits or opportunities because of their skin color. As FIRE made clear in its Elizabethtown College letter, “Good intentions do not make race-based segregation lawful.”

Harvard’s professional theater company can hold a performance where black-identifying members of the university community and the general public are highly encouraged to attend, and where performers craft a message specific to that audience. What Harvard cannot do — according to decades of case law, statutory protections, and its own policies — is treat students or other theatergoers differently because of the color of their skin.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.