In March 2019, it was announced that actress Seyi Omooba would play the lead role of Celie in the Curve Leicester and Birmingham Hippodrome production of The Color Purple.
Seyi’s theatre credits include Hadestown (National Theatre); Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors (Regent’s Park); Martha in Spring Awakening (Hope Mill Theatre) and Tilly in Junkyard (Bristol Old Vic and UK Tour). She also played the role of Nettie in the Cadogan Hall production of The Color Purple.
However, that same day, Hamilton actor Aaron Lee Lambert found this post (pictured) from 2014 and asked “@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.”
A week later, Chris Stafford and Nikolai Foster on behalf of Curve and Fiona Allan on behalf of Birmingham Hippodrome released this statement:
“On Friday 15 March a social media post dating from 2014, which was written by the The Color Purple cast member Seyi Omooba, was re-posted on Twitter. The comments made by Seyi in that post have caused significant and widely expressed concerns both on social media and in the wider press.
Following careful reflection it has been decided that Seyi will no longer be involved with the production. This decision was supported by the Authors and Theatrical Rights Worldwide.
The audition process, as ever, was conducted professionally and rigorously, led by an exceptional casting director with actors who are evaluated on what they present in the audition room. We do not operate a social media screening process in the casting of actors.”
Actress T’Shan Williams was later announced to be taking on the role and received glowing praise for her performance including a ★★★★★ review from West End Wilma saying “at the centre of it all is a star that shines so brightly – T’shan Williams’ portrayal of Celie is phenomenal”.
Now, six months after the controversy, on 28 September 2019, The Daily Mail published an article in which Seyi Omooba broke her silence and gave her side of the story, including news that she is suing for ‘religious discrimination’.
In the article she said that she rejects the assertion that she is homophobic.
She said: ‘I just quoted what the Bible says about homosexuality, the need for repentance, but ultimately God’s love for all humanity. I stand by what I wrote, but had I known that it would have come to this, I would have set my account to the privacy mode.’
Speaking earlier this week on BBC Radio 4, when asked if she still stands by her quote “I do not believe that you can be born gay and I do not believe homosexual practice is right’, Seyi confidently said “Yes I most definitely stand by those comments, I believe what the bible says about what god has called us to do, to live as man and woman, so I definitely stand by the word of god because that’s what the bible says”.
When asked about the character she was supposed to be playing in The Color Purple (a woman who is widely interpreted to be gay) she said: ““I don’t think she’s a lesbian character – she starts off as a 14 year old black woman in Georgia. There is so much to Celie, so much complexity and struggles, she is raped and imprégnanted by her father, also she loses her mother at a very young age I feel like there is so much to Celie and she is trying to understand who she is so I would say you can have your opinions but I am not a hypocrite I will interpret The Color Purple in my own way”.
She finished by saying “I don’t see why what I said was offensive – I was quoting the bible my belief system and my faith. I was expressing my belief system on Facebook, does that mean I can’t perform? I’ve never made people feel less loved because I’m a Christian – just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean we can’t work together or can’t be friends”.
Seyi is suing for breach of contract against the Curve and her former agents, Michael Garrett Associates, with help of the organisation Christian Concern, for which her father Pastor Ade Omooba, is a co-founder. It is interesting to note that her father has previously been reported to be an advocate for gay conversion therapy.
Thankfully the world is moving forward and recent news that same sex relationships are going to be taught about in schools is a great step in the right direction of normalising homosexuality (it is estimated that one in ten people in the UK are gay) but with young people still committing suicide because they are being told their feelings of attraction towards the same sex are wrong, can we reconcile the juxtaposition of someone playing an LGBT+ character on stage publicly denouncing homosexuality as improper? What kind of message is that sending to young people?
Many Christians still interpret the Bible verbatim and they are entitled to do so. In the UK the numbers of those who identify their religion as Christianity is on the decline, with this article suggesting 64% of the UK identified as Christian in 2010, a statistic that is estimated to drop to 45% by 2050.
The theatre community is and has long been overwhelmingly accepting of the LGBT+ community and is considered a ‘safe space’ where people can be themselves completely. It is no surprise to me that Seyi’s comments were met with such disappointment and outrage and I feel it is legitimate for the industry to question whether or not it is incongruous for people who ostensibly and publicly declare anti-LGBT+ sentiment to be performing roles that purport to represent this community.
I for one stand with Birmingham Hippodrome and Curve in their decision to remove her from the show and the theatre community seem to be largely on their side too, you just have to look at all the comments on Twitter this week to see that.
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