Here’s what happened. Last year, a young actress, Seyi Omooba, was cast as Celie in a musical version of The Color Purple at Leicester's Curve Theatre. Celie is a victim of sexual abuse who later finds comfort in a lesbian tryst with a nightclub singer. In the 1985 film, directed by Steven Spielberg, the role was played by Whoopi Goldberg.
Miss Omooba is a practising Christian who believes that gay sex is sinful. Back in 2014, when she was just 20, she posted a statement on Facebook citing 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. She said:
‘I do not believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal doesn’t mean it is right. I do believe that everyone sins and falls into temptation but it’s by the asking of forgiveness, repentance and the grace of God that we overcome and live how God ordained us to.’
Early in 2019 this post was discovered by an actor who had no connection with the Leicester Curve production. He shared it with his 3,500 followers on Twitter, and added:
‘@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 storm of rage blew up on the internet and Ms Omooba was subsequently fired from the show. Her theatrical agency dropped her as well. Omooba has since filed claims against her agency and against the theatre for discrimination on the grounds of her religious beliefs.
I’ve been asked to submit an expert opinion in this case and I’m obliged not to take sides, but I don’t think it harms my impartiality if I say that I disagree with Miss Omooba. It seems to me that gay sex is part of nature and that adults are free to do as they please in the bedroom. I’m not sure it’s anybody else’s business.
But why was Miss Omooba dropped from the show? Were the producers of the show spooked by a Twitter mob calling for a boycott of the show? Were they worried about the possibility of protests outside the venue? A canny publicist would see an opportunity here. A crowd of chanting activists waving placards in the street would give the production visibility and notoriety. The show’s coverage might move from the arts page to the front page and attract the interest of TV news networks. Most impresarios can only dream of such exposure.
Even if Miss Omooba was booed off stage, that could be helpful. In Dublin, in 1907, the Abbey Theatre mounted JM Synge’s melodrama, The Playboy of the Western World, which was interrupted every night by Irish nationalists shouting abuse from the stalls. After the first week, during which the house was full, the trouble-makers abandoned their attempts to suppress the play. It’s rumoured that the theatre’s director, WB Yeats, quietly contacted the nationalists and asked if the hooligans might return because their disruptions were under-writing the show’s success.
It’s understandable that the producers chose not to exploit the controversy to publicise the show. They’re trained to create theatrical entertainment and not to handle an unpredictable rolling news story. In the end, a final attempt was made to resolve matters. Miss Omooba said she was asked to retract her previous statement. She declined. 'I could not do this, not even to save the career that I love,' she said.
But would Miss Omooba's views have prevented her from playing the part for which she was cast? The actor’s skill surely lies in the ability to impersonate a character whose views they don’t share and whose moral habits they may abhor. No actor playing Othello is likely to feel that the murder of the innocent Desdemona is justified.
There’s a final irony at the heart of this case. Miss Omooba has been called a ‘hypocrite’ more than once and she now faces difficulty pursuing her career on stage. ‘Hypocrite’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘actor’. This story takes us closer to the creation of a class of untouchables. How long before any devout Christian who disapproves of gay sex will find it impossible to secure employment?