High-profile discrimination cases in the courts are regularly said to demonstrate the degree of intolerance and bigotry that still infest Britain today, and the need to take steps to do something about it. An employment tribunal case last week is a case in point, but perhaps not in the way you might expect.
In January 2019 Seyi Omooba, a hitherto modestly successful but still struggling Nigerian actress, was signed up by Leicester’s Curve Theatre. The production was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, taking place at the Curve and then subsequently at the Birmingham Hippodrome. She was to play Celie, a character with notoriously lesbian overtones.
The day after the casting was announced, an actor with no connection with the production sprang a revelation on Twitter. About five years earlier Miss Omooba had made it clear in a Facebook post that she regarded homosexuality as being forbidden by Biblical teaching and morally unacceptable. “Do you still stand by this post?” he thundered: “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. Immediate.”
All hell broke loose. The Curve asked Miss Omooba whether this five-year-old pronouncement still represented her belief. She replied, honestly and in conscience, that it did. A week later the theatre sacked her (though it did offer to pay her wages), on the basis that any performance with her in it would face boos and protests from the audience and LGBT protesters and be “untenable”.
Two days after that happened, her agency also dropped her like a hot potato. Its director took the view that she was bad for its image and that its employees would not want to work with someone with views “offensive to the LGBTQ+ community and beyond”.
The result was that, having previously had a promising acting career, Miss Omooba’s prospects of future work were now at best highly stunted. She sued both the theatre and the agency for breach of contract and religious discrimination. Her claim failed. There is no need to bore readers with the legal technicalities. Suffice it to say, however, that there were some interesting features.
Non-lawyers might detect a whiff of casuistry at the finding that she had been sacked not because of her religious views but because of others’ dislike of, and refusal to work with her because of, those same views. Furthermore, it might have been tactful had the members of the tribunal not actually said that they personally found her opinions offensive and distasteful, on the tendentious basis that they denied “the foundation of another person’s integrity and identity.”
It is also noteworthy that they also added that anything going beyond expressing views as to the sinfulness of same-sex relations, such as approving of conversion therapy, was so outrageous as to be beyond the law’s protection – a view that, however legally sound, some might find highly disconcerting.
But enough of the law. The social impact of this episode is more important. Put bluntly, it is difficult to see anyone, apart perhaps from Miss Omooba herself, who comes well out of it. In particular, almost no-one said what might be regarded as obvious to any liberal observer: namely, that whatever her views might be, there was room in the theatrical world for amicable coexistence between her and those who disagreed with her. (The closest anyone came seems to have been the chairman of the theatre’s Board of Trustees, who at least had the decency to say she should not be penalised for her views).
Take first the actor who started the debacle by spilling the beans about the Facebook post. By then a successful and fairly well-known performer in his own right, he used his status to prejudice the position of a younger actress with whom he disagreed, who was still attempting to find her feet in a very difficult profession.
It was unattractive, many might say, gratuitously to publicise a long-dead Facebook post by her in the knowledge that it would probably turn an employer against her and cause her to be sacked and possibly lose her career. To anyone who believes in freedom of opinion and live and let live, it was even less attractive then to go further, as he did, and tweet his congratulations to the theatre after it won its case against her.
Nor did the problem lie only with the actor who started the ball rolling. Anyone who thinks the progressive and theatrical world is somehow a beacon of open-mindedness needs only to read about others involved in this affair to see things from a rather different angle.
The news editor of trade paper The Stage said he felt “betrayed” by Miss Omooba’s presence in the acting profession with the views she had. The artistic and musical directors of the Curve seem to have made it pretty clear from the outset that however good an actress she might be, they were unhappy continuing to work, or having the Curve continue to work, with someone sharing her beliefs. Furthermore, if we are to believe the judgment of the Employment Tribunal, so did at least one performer in the production.
The same view was equally expressed, it seems, by a number of clients and employees of the agency. Their willingness to have a professional relationship with it apparently did not extend to tolerating its representation of someone on its books who had opinions they did not like.
Furthermore, at least if the belief of the director of the Curve was correct in his belief, Midlands theatre-goers themselves would adjust their views of Miss Omooba not simply on how good or convincing she was on stage, but what her private opinions on sexual matters were off it, and clap or boo her accordingly.
None of this, to say the least, makes for attractive reading. Nor does it bode well for the idea of a properly diverse arts scene, in the sense of an area where a variety of views can be expressed without fear of exclusion or worse. If we regard a bigot as someone who is not only firmly and undetachably wedded to a belief or opinion, but also shows antagonistism towards those who who disagree with him and a willingness to disadvantage them, there can be only one conclusion.
In contrast to the attitude of Miss Omooba, who by all accounts was perfectly willing to work alongside those who disagreed with her, bigotry and intolerance remain alive, well and flourishing in and beyond the Leicester theatrical community. And more depressingly still, it seems most at least of those involved in that community are quite happy, from what they see as the best of motives, to keep things that way.
Unlike some, I’ll keep an open mind. But at present I think I’ll probably be giving Leicester a wide berth once theatres are open again.