Now that Seyi Omooba is no longer part of the Leicester Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome’s production of The Color Purple, I suspect everyone involved will be keen to move on.
The regressive homophobic comments made by the performer on Facebook – and the length of time it took the producers to respond – were in danger of tainting the whole show by association.
The whole situation has been a mess. You have to feel for the director Tinkue Craig, the rest of the cast members and the creative team, caught in the middle. It now appears that Omooba is no longer listed by her agent, though she’s yet to issue a statement about the matter herself.
While the comments were made five years ago – when she was a teenager – people’s anger and upset is justified. Her post came to light during a week in which Birmingham parents protested the teaching of LGBT issues in schools and the odious Andrea Leadsom could be heard on the radio saying: “It’s right that parents should be able to choose the moment at which their children become exposed to that information.”
It’s all horribly sad and dispiriting and feels like a lurch backwards, something only heightened by the fact that the world of the theatre has historically been one where LGBT people have found solace, security and a sense of community.
In the case of Omooba, it wasn’t just the nature of her comments – depressing though they were – it was the fact that she’d been cast as Celie, a woman who escapes a past of abuse to find love with a woman, the cabaret singer Shug. Their relationship is a sexual one, as Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel makes abundantly clear, far more so than in the Spielberg film. Shug makes Celie’s “little button” sing. Theirs is a physical, as well as an emotional, relationship. It’s central to the narrative – and the growth of the character. The queerness isn’t an optional extra.
Now I don’t think anyone expects an actor to share all the beliefs of the person they’re playing – and, yes, ideally you want to cast the most able and talented person possible in a role – but there’s a galling (and baffling) hypocrisy in agreeing to play a woman who loves another woman if you do not believe that people can be born gay or that homosexuality is right, as Omooba wrote.
Gay and bi women remain underrepresented on stage; gay women of colour even more so. There are exceptions. Fun Home was a show with the lesbian experience at its heart. But a West End transfer is looking pretty unlikely (despite the acclaim and the large amount of love for that show).
All of this goes towards making the character of Celie more than just another musical theatre role. It’s a major touring co-production, a prominent platform. For Omooba to remain in the role after her views became known would have been doing a disservice to the show’s audience.
Alice Saville, writing for Exeunt, has argued persuasively that while it’s not essential to be gay to play gay, a proven background of being an ally is desirable, particularly as gay women are still side-lined and desexualised in popular culture. I’m optimistic. I hope that the producers learn from this debacle and use it to build relationships with the LGBT community and create something positive so that the version of the show we eventually get to see is one that’s celebratory and unifying.