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Seyi Omooba's claims against Curve Leicester rejected by employment tribunal

The tribunal's decision was revealed this morning

Seyi Omooba in rehearsals in 2018 and right, Curve in Leicester
© Left: WhatsOnStage, right: Ellie Kurttz

Curve Theatre, Leicester have had the case brought against them by actor Seyi Omooba unanimously rejected. Omooba was suing them and her former management agency Global Artists for religious discrimination, harassment alongside breach of contract.

After a week-long hearing at the Central London Employment Tribunal, Omooba who is Christian was claiming £71,400 in compensation. In 2019 she was removed from Curve's production of the musical The Color Purple after historic anti-gay comments she made on Facebook were shared widely online.

The Color Purple is based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer prize-winning 1982 novel of the same name. It tells the tale of Celie, a poor, young, sexually abused African-American woman in the southern United States in the 1930s. As the story progresses, she develops a close and physical relationship with a female singer, named Shug Avery.

After an audition process Omooba was offered the lead character of Celie. Despite the fact that Celie is widely accepted to be a lesbian character (an assertion backed up by the author herself in a statement submitted to the Tribunal) Ms Omooba initially maintained that her interpretation of the novel was that Celie was a woman who was loved by another woman but wasn't necessarily gay. She then claimed that she would have interpreted the character her "own way" before finally admitting that she had a personal "red line" and would not have been able to play a gay woman.

The tribunal heard that Ms Omooba wasn't prepared to retract her statement once it went viral

During two days of testimony Omooba claimed that although she had previously played the role of Nettie (Celie's sister) in a concert version of the show at Cadogan Hall in 2017, she missed the iconic scene where Celie and Shug eventually declare their love for each other and kiss as she was "off-stage" at that point and therefore didn't realise that she was expected to play a lesbian.

She then went on to admit that she didn't read the script before auditioning for the show and still hadn't read it even when offered (and accepted) the part. Furthermore she went on to say that once it had become apparent during the rehearsal process that she was to play a gay character, she would have withdrawn from the show.

In fact events didn't get that far. Once Omooba was announced as playing Celie fellow actor Aaron Lee Lambert re-posted a 2014 Facebook status of hers in which she said "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 it doesn't make it right." He questioned "Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite? Seeing as you've now been announced to play a LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation".

The tribunal heard that Ms Omooba wasn't prepared to retract her statement once it went viral and Curve's chief executive, Chris Stafford, told the tribunal that Omooba's continued involvement in the production would have been a "complete disaster" and led to potential boycotts and protests. He went on to say had she pulled out of the production at rehearsal stage it would have had to be axed. "To get to the stage of rehearsals and then for the lead actor to say she wouldn't play a lesbian, our theatre's credibility would be shot … we would have had to draw a line under the production and cancel The Color Purple," he said.

"this was a role that she didn't want and would have refused to play"

Following frantic and protracted negotiations between Curve, Omooba and her management agent Global Artists it was made clear to her that she had two options; resign or be dismissed. She chose the latter. Backed by the Christian Legal Centre an organisation co-founded by her father, pastor Ade Omooba, Seyi then claimed that her "dismissal" amounted to discrimination and harassment in relation to her religious beliefs, and that Curve breached its contract by removing her from its show.

The actor was initially pursuing £128,000 in compensation from both parties, but revised her financial claim ahead of the final day of the hearing to remedies worth £71,400 to acknowledge the impact that Covid-19 would have had on her potential earning. She also abandoned a claim for £4,309, the amount of her agreed fee for the musical after the hearing heard that this fee had always been offered to Omooba. Her refusal to invoice for the amount and its subsequent inclusion in her claim was described by Curve's representative Tom Coghlin QC as "misconceived and an abuse of process".

Lawyers for Curve and Global Artists argued that the decisions to dismiss her were a result of the effects of Omooba's post becoming public, and the consequences of the subsequent criticism, not the post's contents. Tom Coghlin went on to say "this was a role that she didn't want and would have refused to play" adding that Curve had been placed in an impossible position, and Omooba had tried to force their hand into dismissing her.

Christopher Milsom QC, representing Global Artists, described Omooba as "the author of her own misfortune."

The tribunal's judgment said that: "there is no breach of contract because the claimant was in prior repudiatory breach...the contract was empty because the claimant would not have played the part, and her conduct, pulling out at a late stage, had she not been dropped when she was, would have wrecked the production."

Today Curve's CEO Chris Stafford and artistic director, Nikolai Foster said "we now look forward to drawing a line under this painful chapter and focusing our energies on how we rebuild our theatre after the pandemic" adding "we do not condone any negativity Seyi Omooba has been subjected to and we respectfully ask anyone in support of this ruling to be kind and respectful in acknowledging this victory for Curve and Celie".

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