Seyi Omooba, who was fired from the 2019 West End revival of The Color Purple when past homophobic remarks resurfaced, had a rule against playing gay roles and didn't understand that the main character was in a same-sex relationship, a U.K. court heard this week.
Omooba was initially cast to play the lead role of Celie, who falls in love with another woman, Shug Avery, in the musical play. When anti-LGBTQ+ social media posts and comments she made in 2014 became public, she was fired from the role. “I do not believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal,” she wrote on her Facebook page, adding that she did “not believe you can be born gay.” She has now sued the theater and her former agents for religious discrimination and breach of contract.
The Central London Employment Tribunal heard testimony this week that the actress had told her agents that she would not do any sexually explicit scenes or play any gay roles, the BBC reports. Because of this, lawyer representing the theater said she wouldn’t have played the role even if she wasn’t fired.
“Your position was you wouldn’t play Celie if she was to be played as a lesbian,” Tom Coghlin, who represents the theater, said to Omooba, “and you didn’t share it with the producers, you kept it secret.” Omooba replied, “I didn’t feel like I needed to. I didn’t believe that that’s what this production was going to be.”
Apparently, Omooba didn’t tell the play’s director or anyone else about this rule when she was hired because she didn’t understand that the character was a lesbian. She also admitted that she didn’t read the full script before accepting the role.
But her lawyer, Pavel Stroilov, said the “best-known interpretation” of the story is Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film version, which wiped away much of the queer storyline from Alice Walker's acclaimed 1982 novel. He argued that the “lesbian theme is not present at all” in that version and the one same-sex kiss in the movie could be “interpreted in all sorts of ways.”
Stroilov added that it would have been “absurd” to suggest that Omooba “go and inquire with an employer whether or not they interpret this play differently from Steven Spielberg.”
Coghlin responded saying that the musical and the film are not the same. “They are different works with a common source, which is the novel,” he said, adding that Celie is portrayed in the musical the way she is in the novel, as a lesbian.
“The role she complains about being dismissed from is one that she would have refused to play in any event,” Coghlin said in front of the tribunal. “Her choice was to resign or be dismissed, and she chose to be dismissed.”