Features Published 20 March 2019

The Color Purple; who gets to play gay?

Alice Saville writes on what 'The Color Purple' casting controversy says about theatre producers' attitudes towards queer actors, and queer audiences.
Alice Saville

Seyi Omooba, who is set to star in ‘The Color Purple’, produced by Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester Curve

“Nobody who has talent should be kept out of the acting profession. And nobody, even white, middle-class males, should be prevented from playing any part,” said Simon Callow, commenting in a Guardian piece last week which, slightly insidiously, painted a picture of a world in which increasingly strong calls for diversity in casting were limiting some actors’ careers. It’s a piece that involves a lot of speculation about the expectations of the ‘younger generation’ (even though not a single interviewee quoted in it is under the age of 55). And it raises a lot of questions, particularly within Callow’s quote. Are white middle-class men really being passed over? (I would hazard: no). Is increasing diversity damaging the industry? (also, no). And more broadly, can anyone really play any role if they’ve got the talent to do it?

Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester Curve’s forthcoming production of The Color Purple is doing a lot of things right: it’s directed by Tinuke Craig, a black woman who’s directed works by the likes of debbie tucker green, and is likely to bring nuance to this musical version of Alice Walker’s story, and its multilayered exploration of African-American experience and racial inequality in the South. But despite question marks over her attitudes to homosexuality, Seyi Omooba is playing its lead role of Celie, a woman who overcomes a past of unimaginably awful sexual abuse to find love with female cabaret singer Shug. Even though it’s probably one of literature’s most famous (and best) depictions of lesbianism, Omooba has, in a 2014 Facebook post, explicitly said that “I do not believe homosexuality is right”. Whatever Callow chooses to argue, the defining factor of who gets to play what role can never be just talent, because casting decisions send messages that ripple far beyond a theatre’s walls. Omooba might have changed her mind since she made that post (although the fact that three days have passed without her issuing a retraction suggests that any move towards openmindedness on her part is still tentative) but the decision to cast her still sends an undeniable message to queer audiences.

Alistair Smith’s circumspect editorial on the subject points out that “I cannot see how she can be removed from the production against her will”, and as a point of employment law, that’s correct. She hasn’t broken her contract. She is who she is, and believes what she believes. And the torrent of social media anger aimed at her is unlikely to change her mind – it feels uncomfortable, seeing so much negative attention directed at a black female actor when there are many, many less easy targets. Here, the fault arguably lies with the show’s producers at Birmingham Hippodrome and Leicester Curve, who cast her not believing that her views on homosexuality were either relevant or important [edited to clarify: important enough to discuss them with her in detail before she was cast].

We still live in a world where women aren’t meant to express their sexuality (whatever it might be). It’s considered rude to ask. But there’s surely room for producers to have conversations with actors about their attitudes towards queerness during the casting process. Shrouding them in layers of secrecy and politeness suggest that queerness is something to be ashamed of, or something private: neither of which it should be. If producers are going to stage a story that means this much to queer people, it’s their duty to cast actors who can be ambassadors for the stories they’re telling.

Unlike middle-aged white men, out queer female actors (especially masculine-of-centre ones) are hugely underrepresented in the world of commercial theatre. That’s doubly, triply true for out black queer female actors, and The Color Purple is a production that should be a showcase for their talents. Maybe, somehow, this production genuinely wasn’t able to find someone who was able to be a queer role model. But at the bare minimum, I’d hope that someone cast as one of literature’s most famous queer women would be an ally. And by ally, I don’t mean anything wishy washy about thinking it’s okay to be gay, I mean someone who’s got a proven track record of doing the work. That means publicly supporting the community at times where it might conceivably cost them something: speaking out for trans rights, or on the battle to keep LGBT+ education in primary schools, would be a good place to start.

If producers like the ones behind The Color Purple persist in seeing queerness as an inconvenient extra, rather than something that’s central to the work they’re staging, they risk making a work that feels hollow and inauthentic. And they’re also very unlikely to take the ‘risk’ of explicitly showing queer sexuality, beyond a few chaste kisses between unthreateningly feminine women. This is a story of growing up, shifting religious faith, and sexual awakening, but I was sad to find that any chemistry was pretty limited in the 2013 Menier Chocolate Factory production of the musical, which reduced Shug and Celie’s longterm relationship to a few superfluous-feeling scenes (something that might be a product of Marsha Norman’s book, as much as of director John Doyle’s production). Similarly, the 1985 film of The Color Purple condensed Shug and Celie’s whole sexual relationship to a single kiss. In a convoluted turn of phrase which vividly reveals his discomfort, Steven Spielberg has since admitted that he “was the wrong director to acquit some of the more sexually honest encounters between Shug and Celie”.

It’s unlikely that Birmingham Hippodrome’s production of The Color Purple is going to correct that long tradition of erasing and muting the queer themes in the novel when it has Omooba in the lead. And worryingly, the ticketing page for The Color Purple doesn’t even mention the words ‘lesbianism’, ‘queerness’, or even the copywriters’ usual cop-out of choice, ‘LGBT+ themes’. Its tagline is “the unforgettable story of personal awakening”, presumably because “sexual awakening” might sound a bit, well, gay.

This word choice is a symptom of a world where marketers are still terrified of queer female experience. Media coverage of Keira Knightley’s recent star turn in the film Colette deliberately downplayed its lesbian themes, and in appropriately 19th century style chose to present her as a woman who found sexual fulfilment with, rather than in spite of, her husband. And Fun Home’s marketing carefully focused on the more ‘universal’ story of a father-daughter relationship, even though Alison Bechdel’s proud dyke identity is central to the show. But that’s hardly surprising. Where male homosexuality is marketable (at least if it sits within the very limited parameters of socially-permissable camp or heart-melting sentimentality) female homosexuality is still, like lesbian icon Joan Crawford, seen as ‘box office poison’. But how can it be anything else, when these shows make so little effort to reach out to queer female audiences, and their PRs shy away from offering big interviews to LBT publications like Autostraddle and Diva?

Back to Simon Callow: in the Guardian interview, he went on to say that “As a gay man, I’ve been impressed by seeing non-gay actors, such as Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name, playing men loving other men, helping to cancel out Hollywood’s grim record of vicious homophobic caricature.”

But straight actors being lauded for playing gay roles isn’t ‘cancelling out’ Hollywood’s history at all; it’s just creating a new chapter, one in which they get praised for taking on parts that are perceived as being especially impressive just because they involve same-sex affection. Maybe Omooba will overcome any distaste she might feel for the LGBT+ community enough to ace the role. But delivering a beautiful performance onstage isn’t enough: what happens offstage counts, too. And it’s no longer enough to ‘go on a journey’ until you’re blandly, passively supportive of rights that have already been granted. For productions like The Color Purple to get the support of queer women (and I hope to goodness that, despite all evidence, that they’re trying to), they need to be ready to take a risk.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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