By Terrance Turner
May 9, 2022 (updated May 26, June 12)
This story contains mature themes and strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.
Actor Jesse Williams has scored a Tony nomination — and a whole lot of online admirers — for his performance in “Take Me Out”.
The play, by American playwright Richard Greenberg, is being revived on Broadway 20 years after its original run (it won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2003). It’s running through June 11 at the Helen Hayes Theater (on 240 West 44th Street). Williams plays Darren Lemming, a biracial baseball player who rocks the sports world by coming out as gay. The resulting firestorm spreads throughout the baseball world — and the team’s locker room.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Mason Marzac, Darren’s agent, a gay man who becomes a sudden baseball convert — falling in love with the game instead of with his hot jock client. Mason doesn’t care about sports, indeed has been alienated from them—until now. Michael Oberholtzer plays Shane Mungitt, a fantastic pitcher with a horrible past, whose casual homophobia and racism becomes a secondary cultural prism in the play. In a television interview, Shane expresses discomfort with playing alongside “colored people“: “I don’t mind the colored people, the gooks an’ the spics an’ the coons,” he says. “But every night to have to take a shower with a faggot???”
Mungitt’s remarks are televised; he gets suspended from the team, after which point the team starts losing again. After writing an apology letter, Shane gets reinstated; Darren reacts provocatively. In one of the play’s shower scenes, he rags on Shane for his bigotry and mockingly kisses him. It was one of the shower scenes, in fact, that drew a lot of online attention today.
Williams and the other actors are completely nude in this scene; Williams caused a sensation on social media when footage of him was leaked. (NOTE: The Helen Hayes Theater has required patrons to place their phones in sealed cases during the play; no photography or recording are allowed. It appears that someone violated this rule and recorded Williams without his consent. While I cannot include the video here due to restrictions on nudity, photos and videos have been posted online.)
UPDATE: According to NBC News, the Second Stage Theater, which oversees Hayes Theater where “Take Me Out” is being performed, said that it would provide more staffing at the venue to prevent further recordings.
“Taking naked pictures of anyone without their consent is highly objectionable and can have severe legal consequences,” the theater said. “Posting it on the internet is a gross and unacceptable violation of trust between the actor and audience forged in the theatre community.”
Interestingly, Williams appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” just hours before the leak. Host Andy Cohen asked him about how he felt being naked on stage. Williams appeared unbothered.
“Everybody makes such a big deal,” Williams said of his nude scene. “It’s a body. Once you see it, you realize it’s whatever.”
“How insane, though. This is your stage debut and you’re, like, fully naked. I mean, that’s doubly scary,” Cohen said.
“I’m told it’s quite insane, but it’s a first so I have nothing to compare it to — and I won’t be scared of anything after this, that’s for sure,” Williams remarked.
Twitter went into a tizzy over Williams’ full-frontal exposure: he was trending for hours. But Broadway critics have taken note of more than just his physical assets. “He is well-cast as a baseball superstar,” wrote Insider reporter Esme Mazzeo. “He’s at ease playing magnetic and thoughtful, with acting choices that go beyond the page. He’s the right person to tell the story of a hero’s fall to human.” Tony voters agreed: when the nominations for the Tony Awards were announced this morning, Williams, Ferguson, and Oberholtzer were all nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Play.
Williams’ nomination signals success in what could’ve been (and often still is) a dicey proposition: a straight actor playing a gay character. “It should generate conversation,” he tells Entertainment Weekly. “Look, I’m Black. We’ve had white people playing our roles ad nauseam for centuries. Women weren’t even allowed to be on the stage until this last century. Men played all the roles. We have a white Prince of Persia and Last Samurai and every other role, so I get that underrepresentation. And people want to be able to be counted and be included.”
At the same time, Williams says art should be able to expand our awareness beyond our own limited experiences. “This is a play that’s written by a Jewish man about a Black character,” he reflects. “Everybody’s involved in trying to make art and we have to have the ability to speak and express our interest and explore ideas beyond the limits of our own singular lives.”
Williams hopes his performance and decision to take on this role will be met with the good faith of his own work as an ally and advocate, which he says he’s brought to his rehearsals and preparation. “I’ve absolutely clearly established myself as a proponent of advocacy and accountability and for the underrepresented to have a space to explore,” he says. “That applies all around and Darren is somebody who is somewhat unique in that he’s biracial and straight presenting. He doesn’t consider himself part of the gay community, and he’s struggling with his own identity and sense of awareness there. I don’t claim to have a solve for all of it. I’m deeply sensitive to it. And I’m asking all the questions I possibly can and figuring out the best way to be in service to the material.”
Asked why he wanted the role, Williams replied: “The material is incredible. There’s a couple of things at play. One is, I was leaving a job that I’d been at and been comfortable in for some time.” [Williams recently left “Grey’s Anatomy”, where he’d played a doctor from 2009 to 2021.] I didn’t want to be too comfortable. I wanted to do something very different. If I’m going to make a shift, I want to make a shift with purpose. I wanted to do something that was really going to challenge me and scare me. Where I would have a really high learning curve, I only got a small taste of doing theater with an Off-Broadway play with Edward Albee, I don’t know, fifteen years ago. It just looked like a really incredible opportunity and a challenge, and the material is something that really consistently moves me.
Baseball played a really integral part in my life — in my childhood and my upbringing and my connection to my father and my siblings — with metaphorical learnings about the game and life as a whole. But the issues around identity and self-realization and discrimination and purpose, all of these themes were relevant. They not only strike a nerve with me as a human being, but are important and compelling for society to wrestle with. It’s smart, fast, intellectually and spiritually and emotionally stimulating, and challenging. It’s funny as hell. The cast is incredible. Our director Scott Ellis really won me over in our first conversation when I was deciding whether or not to accept the opportunity. It’s just a total gift from the gods that came down from the heavens and is exactly what I should be doing.”