Friday 19 February 2021

Seyi Omooba: A princess refuses to play her role

The acting of Celie

I have been following the case of Seyi Omooba, the actress or rather the actor as I have noticed the gender-specificity appears to have been taken out of the noun for the acting profession. She was to have taken the lead role of Celie in a stage production of The Colour Purple until it was found that sometime in the past written view on Facebook that called into question her ability to take on the role.

Apparently, the role of Celie does have some same-sex attraction and it is left to the director to decide how that is interpreted and the actor to give that the best expression possible that the audience will suspend belief and be absorbed in the depiction and quality of the performance. That is what actors do, it does not make actors the roles they play in real life.

The mind of Seyi

Ms Omooba, however, wears her religion on her sleeve and that appears to come before her vocation for which she was by all terms fully qualified to do, for that is why she auditioned and was selected to play Celie. She was not minded to play the part as she had said on a Facebook post that, “I do not believe you can be born gay, and I do not believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal doesn't mean its [sic] right.” [BBC News: Seyi Omooba: Actress sacked over anti-gay post loses legal fight]

Now, Ms Omooba is entitled to her views and beliefs, we live in a free country, what she believes to be right is her prerogative and that is fine by me, even if those views question the essence of my being and that of the broader LGBTI+ community, or that of any other person. Prejudices abound, what matters is the ability despite our persuasion, that difference exists and that is the way the world is. We can all live our lives happily respecting that.

The princess throws a strop

Having expressed those views way back in 2014, they had not changed when she took on the role of Celia and Ms Omooba was going to depict the role within the constraints of her worldview making no allowances for either directorial discretion or that of the author of The Colour Purple. At which point it was decided she was incompatible with the role and the theatre seeking an amicable settlement offered her unconditionally full salary to walk away, but she was not going quietly.

She took the case to tribunal seeking substantial redress and compensation, supported by a fundamentalist religious organisation founded by her father and has lost.

It has not escaped my notice that the name Ọmọọba is Yoruba for the child of a king, suggesting prince or princess, we still have gender roles in royal titles. Her father is both a religious and community leader who has been honoured with an MBE for his community work whilst being strident homophobic, but we can separate the issues, it does not make him any less worthy of honour.

The choices she made

His princess, fully imbued with the teachings of her father needed to work in a rather different environment that offers equality of opportunity and the acceptance of diversity, but chose to use her inability to adapt to a different environment to play the victim of discrimination, thankfully, she could not play the race card because it is very likely the role that once went to Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg and had Quincy Jones as one of the producers would most definitely have gone to another African American.

This is what Ms Omooba had to say on the website of Christian Concern, “When I received the email that I was going to be dropped from the cast, I was heartbroken. The agency told me that I would receive financial compensation, but I am not in this for the money. For me it’s not about the money or my face – it was about telling and expressing Celie’s story, as I interpret it as a performer, because that is what I love to do.”

Yet the theatre and the agency gave me the choice of either losing my career or renouncing my faith. I could not do this, not even to save the career that I love.” [Christian Concern: Seyi Omooba]

No, sweet child, you cannot unilaterally interpret a role divergent from what the director requires the role to be. Celie’s story was written in 1982, was depicted on film in 1985 and there is a musical remake to be released in 2023, society and norms have so moved on. [Wikipedia: The Colour Purple (Film)]

The choices they made

Yet, much as this might have been a career-boosting opportunity, no one was asking you to choose between your faith or your career, you made that choice. Your career was not ending, you created the circumstances for questioning if you were suitable for the role and whether you could be represented by your management agency. As the lawyer for the agency stated at tribunal, “Her comments had so adversely affected her future employability that her contract with Global was ‘an empty vessel.’” [The Telegraph: Actress Seyi Omooba loses tribunal claim over her dismissal from The Color Purple]

It would appear rather than for the common good, you took the selfish and unchristianly stance to jeopardise the fortunes of the theatre ready to compensate you and the management agency about to lose clients because of what you chose to represent; prejudice, bigotry, entitlement, and intransigence.

The opportunity she did not embrace

Her troubles began when in 2019, after she was announced as the lead for The Colour Purple, a member of the cast of Hamilton, Aaron Lee Lambert asked on Twitter, with a caption of her Facebook post, “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.

Ms Omooba did not answer to the issue for months and the theatre seeing the public relations disaster brewing had to take measures to both save the production and their enterprise when it became apparent that she was not ready to temper her views. In the comments that followed the tweet, it was revealed she had recently refused to appear in a pride video along with members of the cast of another production she featured in. Besides, she had before appeared in a concert version of The Colour Purple.

She had no case, just trouble

Laid out in those terms, it was unlikely Ms Omooba had any intention of playing or depicting any of the LGBTQ aspects of the Celie character, one cannot suggest what presumably chaste component she would have brought to give the role a meaningful interpretation in consonance with the original writing.

The tribunal ruling against her demands for compensation for loss of earnings, future losses and reputational damage concluded, “If there is damage to her reputation, it was not caused by being dropped from the production but by an unconnected person's tweeting... of her Facebook post and the outcry resulting from that.” [BBC News: Seyi Omooba: Actress sacked over anti-gay post loses legal fight]

We all have to live with others

My takeaway from this case is simple, you are free to have whatever views you espouse, but the moment you publish them, they are on the record for a public and global audience that extends well beyond the community that would fully agree with our opinions that it is necessary that the expression of such views do not become a future impediment to progress.

Bigotry, prejudice, hypocrisy, lies, unkindness, hate, inhumanity no matter how reasoned our positions are do not win laurels, they eventually become burdens unintended and consequential.

Religious intransigence in a liberal and secular environment is the harbinger of notoriety and personal grief. Your beliefs exist within constructs, never in a vacuum. Ms Omooba accepted the construct that homosexuality is legal, and much as she could comment on the rightness or the wrongness of the law, she chose a moralistic dimension that set her apart from the profession and broader society that had made accommodations for living and let live, it became her undoing.

Within fundamental Christian circles, Ms Omooba might be lauded and celebrated for her courage and integrity, that is probably where she can ply her trade, in the cohort of those who believe the same way as she does. However, if she needs an audience to her art and talent beyond that setting, the change will have to happen to her, though she might well think it is the society that needs to bend to her will. That is her hill if she chooses to die on it.

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