Jesse Williams‘ name has recently experienced a spike in buzz and searches due to his appearance in Take Me Out on Broadway, but not just for his moving Tony Award-nominated performance.
Williams currently stars in the limited engagement revival of Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play about a fictional bi-racial professional baseball player publicly coming out of the closet. Taking the lead as Darren Lemming, the player at the center of the story, the actor appears in full-frontal nudity alongside several other actors at multiple points during the production, which largely takes place inside the team’s locker room.
Audience members attending the production at New York’s Second Stage Theater are required to lock their phones away in Yondr pouches – special lock bags crafted for private, phone-free events that prevent access to the devices until they are unlocked upon exiting – per the venue’s requirements. However, upon the announcement of the Tony Award nominations on Monday, video and photos captured via mobile phone from the audience singling out Williams during a nude shower scene were posted to social media, quickly becoming viral.
Take Me Out was nominated for a total of four 2022 Tony Awards, including a nod for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for Williams.
During an appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, which coincided with the leak, Williams addressed the nerves and pitfalls that come with being in such a vulnerable position. When asked by Cohen if he preferred an audible audience reaction or complete silence when appearing naked on stage, the actor responded that he didn’t particularly “like any of it.”
“What I’ve learned in my minutes on Broadway is don’t try to read into it, because it just creates more insecurity,” he continued.
“I’m told it’s quite insane,” he said of including full-frontal nudity in his debut on Broadway. “It’s a first, and I don’t have anything to compare it to. I won’t be scared of anything after this.”
When it comes to baring his body in front of agents, family, friends, colleagues, audience members – and now anyone else who seeks it out online – Williams says it’s simply all in one’s mindset.
“Everyone around me [was] going, ‘Are you sure? Nude, nude?’ Everybody made such a big deal – it’s a body,” he said matter of factly. “Once you see it you realize, it’s whatever. It’s a body. I just have to not make it such a big deal.”
While Williams hasn’t yet expressed any anger or disappointment at the violation of his in-theater privacy, William’s co-star, Modern Family alum Jesse Tyler-Ferguson, has come forward saying he is beyond offended by what occurred.
“I’m appalled by the disrespect shown to the actors of our company whose vulnerability on stage every night is crucial to Take Me Out,” Ferguson shared via Twitter. “Anyone who applauds or trivializes this behavior has no place in the theater, which has always been a safe space for artists & audience members.”
Though the theater is indeed supposed to be a safe space for these types of artistic expressions, the incident involving Williams was not the first of its kind – and certainly not the first for a performer of color.
Six-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald famously endured a similar infraction during her 2019 appearance in Broadway’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. She took to Twitter to publicly blast an audience member for taking a flash photo of her during an on-stage nude scene involving simulated sex.
In response to this latest infraction, Second Stage Theater issued a statement asserting that they too are “appalled” by the incident.
“Taking naked pictures of someone without their consent is highly objectionable and can have severe legal consequences. Posting it on the internet is a gross and unacceptable violation of trust between the actor and audience forged in the theater community,” their statement read, noting that they are actively pursuing takedown requests and adding more in-theater staff to monitor the audience.
As an added measure, the theater has also installed an infrared camera system that will more closely monitor the audience’s activity, according to Deadline. The cameras will face the audience and be examined in real-time by the on-site security team, who will be able to gauge if there are any cell phones in-use during the show’s runtime.