An actress who was dropped from the lead role of The Color Purple for posting alleged homophobic remarks online did not realise the character she was due to portray was a lesbian.
An employment tribunal heard Seyi Oomba was due to play the lead character, Celie, in The Color Purple at Leicester’s Curve Theatre in 2019. But she was later dismissed over anti-LGBT+ comments she made on Facebook in 2014.
Omooba is suing the Leicester Theatre Trust and her agents Michael Garrett Associates Ltd (Global Artists) for around £128,000 for her dismissal, claiming religious discrimination and breach of contract.
She is being represented by the legal arm of Christian Concern, an organisation co-founded by her father. The group said the case will “expose the mechanisms of censorship at the heart of the theatre industry”, adding that “any dissenting views against LGBT+ ideology, especially Christian beliefs, are currently incompatible with a theatrical career”.
“Best known interpretation’
On Monday (1 February), it emerged that Omooba previously told her agents she would refuse to play a gay character.
But her lawyers say she did not understand Celie to be a lesbian, that the character’s sexuality was ambiguous, and Omooba was not explicitly told she would have to play a gay role.
Pavel Stoilov, Omooba’s representative at the employment tribunal, said the “best-known interpretation” of The Color Purple is the 1985 Steven Spielberg film. Stoilov said the “lesbian theme is not present at all” in the film, and there is one kiss between female characters which could be “interpreted in all sorts of ways”.
“It is in no way obvious and was never made clear to the claimant that she was expected to play a lesbian character,” Stoilov said. “She was never asked explicitly to play this character as a lesbian.”
The reality is that Celie in The Color Purple is gay
The Color Purple is based on the 1982 novel by Alive Walker of the same way. The book tells the life of Celie, a poor, young, abused African-American woman in the southern US in the 1930s. As the story progresses, Celie develops a close sexual relationship with a female blues and jazz singer Shug.
Whoopi Goldberg played Celie in the Spielberg adaptation of the novel and play. Spielberg admitted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that he softened the romantic relationship between Celie and Shug. He said there were “certain things” in the lesbian relationship that were “finely detailed in Alice’s book, that I didn’t feel we could get a PG-13 rating”.
“I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss,” Spielberg said.
Omooba said she was never asked “explicitly” to play the character of Celie as a lesbian. Stoilov argued it was “absurd” to suggest an employee – in this case, an actor – to “go and inquire with an employer whether or not they interpret this play differently from Steven Spielberg”.
‘Resign from The Color Purple or be dismissed’
Tom Coghlin QC, representing the Leicester Theatre Trust, said Omooda’s stance on homosexuality constituted a “repudiatory breach of contract” and her dismissal was therefore not “unwanted conduct”.
He said the musical is not the film, “They are different works with a common source, which is the novel.” Coghlin said Omooba “didn’t check” with the director if Celie would be interpreted in the “usually understood way, which was as a gay character”.
“The role she complains about being dismissed from is one that she would have refused to play in any event,” Coghlin told the tribunal. “Her choice was to resign or be dismissed, and she chose to be dismissed.”
‘I don’t believe you can be born gay’
In 2014, Omooba posted on Facebook: “I do not believe you can be born gay, and I don’t believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal it doesn’t make it right.”
The comments came to light after actor Aaron Lee Lambert, who stars in the West End production of Hamilton, shared the Facebook post after Omooba was announced for the role of Celie in March 2019. Lambert called out Omooba on Twitter, objecting to her views because the character of Celie is gay.
He asked: “Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite? Seeing as you’ve now been announced to be playing an LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation. Immediately.”
@Seyiomooba Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite? Seeing as you’ve now been announced to be playing an LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation. Immediately. pic.twitter.com/GK2xbzZYgy
— Aaron Lee Lambert (@aleelambert) March 15, 2019
At the time, the Curve Theatre stated that “following careful reflection” it was decided that “Seyi will no longer be involved with the production”.
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