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Following the controversy surrounding Leicester Curve’s production of The Color Purple and Seyi Omooba’s tribunal, Samuel Nicholls pens an opinion piece on the paradox of intolerance.
“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 right.”
Seyi Omooba posted this comment on her Facebook page in 2014, and 6 years later it got her fired from the Curve Theatre’s production of The Color Purple. Initially cast as Celie, widely read to be a bisexual woman in Alice Walker’s novel, Omooba was sacked by Curve after they concluded that this post (and the actress’s continued support of it) made her involvement in the show untenable. Dissatisfied with this decision, Omooba sought to challenge this move in court, claiming that she “never knew the character was gay.”
However, earlier this month, her case was dismissed by the Central London Employment Tribunal, who said that “[Omooba] had taken part in a similar production, she had the script, and [she knew] that a lesbian relationship was [involved].” She knew that the character was gay, and took the role anyway. Why? Well, it wasn’t for the money.
Indeed, despite being offered her original salary even after her dismissal from the production, Omooba still decided to sue the Curve, citing the supposed damage to her career and “injury to [her] feelings” – a classic ironic move of ‘I’ve insulted you, now you pay me’.
But, for Omooba, this isn’t about fortune and fame. As she explains, “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.”
The phrase “as I interpret it” really does epitomise the entire situation. Omooba somehow feels that a person’s sexuality is a matter of opinion, something that is totally up for “interpretation”. Perhaps the actress was hoping that the disconnect between the film and stage versions of the character would obfuscate her ‘choice’ (unlike stage Celie, film Celie’s sexuality is far more ambiguous).
Either way, this strange idea that a person’s sexuality is up for ‘interpretation’ seems to be at the very core of this case. Christian Concern, an organisation co-founded by Omooba’s father that led her legal efforts, has said just as much. After the Tribunal rejected Omooba’s claim, they stated they hoped this case had nevertheless exposed “the mechanisms of censorship at the heart of the theatre industry, and how any dissenting views against LGBT ideology…are currently incompatible with a theatrical career”.
To clarify: for Christian Concern, the theatre industry isn’t inclusive enough to those with intolerant views, and they hope this case showed that. Homophobes can’t catch a break, eh?
Really, what we’re getting at here is the paradox of tolerance: if a community is completely tolerant, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. Omooba and Christian Concern are arguing that the theatre industry needs to tolerate their “dissenting views against LGBT ideology”. Of course, as soon as the industry relents and lets these views exist, it becomes intolerant to the LBGTQIA+ community; it’s a paradox.
Nevertheless, people routinely use ideas of ‘tolerance’ and ‘free-speech’ to facilitate the normalisation of intolerant views. It just so happens, now, it’s reached the realm of UK theatre. Moreover, it’s something that the wider society has been seeing a lot more of recently; we’re at the beginning of a war against so-called ‘cancel culture’.
Earlier this month, for example, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that he would be creating the role of a ‘Free-Speech Champion’, who would be tasked with “strengthening free speech…at universities”. According to Williamson, ‘cancel culture’ has grown to such an egregious size that these drastic steps were necessary to maintain “academic freedom” … so as to allow intolerant views to still be heard.
Just look at the dog-whistle of an example Williamson gave to justify this new role. He cited the case of Felix Ngole, a student who was expelled from the University of Sheffield in 2016 due to claiming that “God hates homosexuality”, and describing gay sex as a “wicked act”. In his policy paper, Williamson said cases like Ngole’s illustrates that “the rise of intolerance and ‘cancel culture’… directly affects individuals and their livelihoods.”
Again, to clarify: the government is appointing a ‘Free-Speech Champion’ in order to ensure that intolerant views are tolerated on university campuses.
Keep in mind, of course, that this cloying attempt at populist grand-standing comes a few weeks after Williamson was voted the most unpopular Cabinet minister by Tories by over 30 points. Equally, in a review of over 10,000 speaking events held at UK universities, it was discovered that only six had ever been ‘cancelled’: four lacked the required paperwork, one was a fraudster recruiting for a pyramid scheme, and the last was Jeremy Corbyn, whose rally was moved to a larger venue off-campus. It’s almost as if the pervasive issue of ‘cancel culture’ doesn’t actually exist, and this is all just bottom-feeding politicking…!
Above all else, the issue here isn’t that theatres like the Curve may lose cases like these; it’s that these cases move the goalposts, normalising the idea of tolerating intolerance. Despite ostensibly ‘losing’ their case, Omooba and Christian Concern have made it so their plight “against [the] LGBT ideology” has been a high-profile event; it’s brought attention to their ‘free-speech’ movement. Backdropped by the Government’s ‘war on cancel culture’, it’s likely cases like these will become far more common occurrences. Soon, tolerating intolerance will become the de-facto norm in the theatre industry, much to the chagrin of marginalised communities everywhere.
Of course, there is perhaps one silver lining. As Aleks Sierz explains, the explosion of theatrical creativity in the UK in the 90s was a direct response to the philistine 80s Tory government. In this regard, maybe the next Sarah Kane is watching all this go down and is thinking to themselves “fuck it, it’s time to start writing”. Fingers crossed their show won’t accidentally cast a homophobe, though.