You might know Jesse Williams as the handsome plastic surgeon Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy. But his current role, playing the Major League baseball player Darren in Take Me Out on Broadway, is a lot closer to home. For one, Williams grew up playing baseball; his position was shortstop. His dad, who also played in the local baseball team, was his coach. Unfortunately, the family could not afford many baseballs.
“My dad would take rags from leftover clothes, and we would rip them into balls and tie them with duct tape and make a bucket full of balls duct-taped with rags,” recalls Williams. Those rag-balls were what Williams used for batting practice. And, it also taught him a valuable lesson “on industriousness and making do. It’s not about the bells and whistles.”
Williams first played Darren Lemming this past spring, when Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg played on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. For his portrayal of a star baseball player who sends the League into a frenzy when he comes out as gay, Williams received his first Tony nomination. Now, Williams is reprising his role in an encore limited engagement, now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre until February 5, 2023. When asked why he decided to do the play again, Williams remarks with no hesitation, “The play is f**cking good.”
Like Darren, Williams is mixed-race: His mother is white and his father is Black. In the show, Darren is positioned as a person who is above race, whose stardom is a symbol of America’s progress. As one character remarks, Darren is “a Black man who you could imagine had never suffered.”
For Williams—who grew up in a poor, Black neighborhood in Chicago (where he saw firsthand the ravages of the crack epidemic), and then later lived in a wealthier white suburban neighborhood in Massachusetts (where he experienced his share of racism)—he empathized with Darren’s ability to be a chameleon. “I can relate to elements of that, for sure, to be both and neither,” he explains. “All of that has informed my ability to have discernment, and to interpret, strategize, and use language that is going to be effective in whatever environment I happen to be in.”
To many on his team, Darren coming out seems unnecessary and disruptive. But to Williams, it is an act taken by a man striving to define himself, having become tired of people defining his identity for him. Darren’s coming out also leads to a wave of homophobia, both overt (one of his team members calls him the F slur) and more insidious (such as the men being uncomfortable at being naked in the locker room with him). A large reason Williams wanted to make his Broadway debut in Take Me Out was because of Greenberg’s nuanced portrayal of homophobia and toxic masculinity. He said it reminded him of a quote from singer-songwriter Saul Williams.
“That hyper masculinity where we talk all the time to each other, but never actually communicate,” explains Williams, paraphrasing Saul Williams. “All my conversations with men are about sports or music, so we’re talking for hours but we haven’t talked about how we really feel or any of the vulnerable stuff.” And according to Williams, Take Me Out shows that “by being completely invulnerable and wearing armor,” the door is open for men to be “violent to other people.”
Take Me Out is not set in the 1970s or 1980s. It’s set in 2002, an era that prided itself on progressivism but was more regressive under the surface. Even now, though drag queens frequently appear on television, states like Texas and Florida have passed laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community. To Williams, the play dramatizes that whenever there is progress, there is inevitably backlash.
“There’s all these parameters around freedom, and that is symbolic of women’s rights or racial equality—where people act like, ‘I’m not homophobic, but what is this agenda to have gay people in media?’” says Williams, clearly disgusted. “There’s this false victim perception of ‘I’m drowning in change,’ when, in fact, the rest of us have been drowning in staleness.”
Besides Williams doing Take Me Out on stage, twice, he is also starring in a miniseries adaptation of the play (Greenberg is penning the script). But to Williams, who began his career on the small screen, he’s now fallen in love with theatre, particularly how the art form allows actors to go through a complete emotional arc every night, and enrapture a live audience while they’re doing it. Though yes, a live audience does have its pitfalls: earlier this year, Take Me Out made headlines when an audience member took cell phone footage of the show’s nude scenes and leaked them online, despite audiences being checked at the theatre to make sure their phones are encased and inaccessible in locked Yondr pouches.
Williams admits he doesn’t like talking about that controversy: “There's only one Broadway on the planet. People are coming to see theatre and anything else is an added distraction.”
But unruly audience members are not enough to keep him from performing live. In other words, though Williams was originally hesitant to perform on Broadway, the theatre bug has now bitten him. “It's funny,” Williams muses. “To have done films on location and with high budgets … all that stuff is so much less real than standing on a bare stage and living completely with somebody else.” He then adds, earnestly, “You're engaged in a human connection that is far more profound than any of those visual elements.”
It also helps that Williams’ dad also loves his performance, particularly his ability to mock hit a baseball onstage. “He complimented the form!” Williams says proudly. “That’s the most important review I’m ever going to get, so I feel good.”