Epilogue of a nude scene: On Jesse Williams’ indecent exposure

OPINION: The leak of Jesse Williams' nude scene in Broadway's 'Take Me Out' broke the internet—but what are the bigger implications for the theater world and politics of consent?

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

So, did you look? Whether or not you did so intentionally, you no doubt had a hard time avoiding the leak of Jesse Williams’ Broadway nude scene that had Black Twitter buzzing for the better part of last week. In fact, you might not have known what you were walking into when Williams’ name began trending on Sunday, May 8. By the following day, your curiosity might have gotten the best of you—or maybe you were just there for the comments. By mid-week…well, you know what you did, and you know why.

Jesse Williams theGrio.com
Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images

Presumably, we’re all grown-ups here, so we’re also well aware how many of us otherwise mature adults spontaneously reenter puberty at the sight of nudity or mere suggestion of the erotic. We can also acknowledge that Williams’ smoldering and occasionally shirtless tenure on Grey’s Anatomy—coupled with his status as a “woke” darling (however fickle such designations may be)—have long established him a sex symbol in the eyes of many.

No doubt the actor’s physical appeal was also a factor in casting the actor to lead the revival of Richard Greenberg’s Tony Award-winning play, Take Me Out, stepping into a role that also garnered actor Daniel Sunjata a 2003 Tony nomination. Given that Williams knowingly accepted a role that required him to be nude before hundreds of theatergoers nightly, aside from the price of the ticket, many online voyeurs likely wondered: What was the big deal, really?

A Brief (and Bare) History of the Theater

“Theater is a sacred space. It’s been a sacred space for millennia,” says actor Namir Smallwood, who helped reopen Broadway last fall as one of the leads in Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over. “Thousands and thousands of years before churches—before masjids, and mosques and temples—that’s where you communed with your fellow human beings and God. That’s where it started: theater. We live in a time where nothing is sacred anymore.” (Full disclosure: Smallwood is also my partner.)

As for nudity, it’s not sacred, either, and first made a splash on Broadway in 1968 in the musical Hair, which famously saw its multiracial cast—which included notables like Ben Vereen and Melba Moore in its initial run—strip down during one of its numbers. In the early ’70s, the sexually charged Oh! Calcutta! upped the ante—and introduced a celebrity component with the involvement of big names like Sam Shepard and John Lennon, eventually becoming Broadway’s longest-running musical revue.

Among memorable Broadway barings: in 1998, Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman made headlines by appearing entirely nude in The Blue Room. Ten years later, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe did the same for his Broadway debut in Equus, while British icon Ian McKellen briefly appeared nude in 2007’s King Lear. John Lithgow won a Tony for his 1973 role in The Changing Room, which, like Take Me Out, featured nudity in a locker room scene (h/t SheKnows).

Notably, the last known incident of an audience member breaking the rules in a manner similar to was in 2019, when Audra McDonald and co-star Michael Shannon noticed a flash in the audience during their nude scene in the Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

In both Take Me Out‘s 2003 iteration and now, the role of of Darren Lemming, the mixed-race and gay center fielder of a fictional Major League Baseball team, requires full-frontal male nudity, thanks to shower scenes in which the leading man and several castmates appear in the buff (as one typically does in the shower). In a 2003 interview with the New York Post, Sunjata expressed concern about binoculars in the audience each night. Nearly 20 years later, Williams assumed the role in an era where both camera phones and social media are ubiquitous.

Broadway’s Second Stage Theater aimed to address that new reality through the use of locked Yondr pouches, creating a “phone-free space” for the duration of the performance. As suggested by Playbill, it was only the second time Yondrs been used on Broadway, following the Lin-Manuel Miranda vehicle Freestyle Love Supreme.

Appearing on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, Williams explained to host Andy Cohen his approach to the nudity was “to not make it that big of a deal.” The episode aired on May 9, ironically the same day leaked images and video of the star’s nude scene began going viral on social media. As fate would have it, it was also the same day Williams’ Tony nomination was announced, a big deal for any stage actor that was sadly overshadowed by the most sensationalist part of his performance.

A Sickness We Can’t Shake

When Broadway reopened in the fall of 2021, the industry’s biggest concern was furthering the spread of COVID with the return of audiences to theaters. Justifiably so, as many of the season’s productions continue to be affected by the ongoing pandemic. But in Smallwood’s opinion, theater culture had dramatically shifted years before with “the advent of social media and technology with cell phones [and] stuff like Instagram.

There’s no sense of this evolution of humanity, of living in the moment. That’s passé,” he said. “You have to document everything…because if you don’t document it, it’s like it didn’t happen. You weren’t there. That’s cool in one aspect, but in another aspect, it’s also dangerous; you know, as we see now.”

Smallwood has firsthand experience with onstage nudity. In addition to Pass Over, in which the three-man cast disrobed in the show’s final scene, he subsequently performed a full-frontal nude scene opposite an also nude Carrie Coon in Tracy Letts’ Bug for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

Of both experiences, he simply said: “People have a really weird relationship to other people’s bodies.”

The Silent Character

The phrase “breaking the fourth wall” is a familiar one in film and television, referring to a character’s acknowledgment of the audience, and accordingly, their own fictionality. Less discussed is the role the audience and others are expected to play in live performances.

“Theater is a sacred space, and everybody doesn’t understand that,” said Williams, echoing Smallwood’s words as he addressed the violation last Thursday. “Everybody doesn’t necessarily respect or regard that in a way that maybe they should, or we’d like.”

“We are not the only ones that participate in this work in creating not only safe space but brave spaces,” Jyreika Guest, a Chicago-based actor and intimacy director told theGrio. “The audience is responsible. Our institutions are responsible. The staff of that theater is responsible. The creative team, the crew. Everyone is responsible [for] making it a safe space and a brave space.”

As both Guest and Smallwood assert, the outrage over the sharing of Williams’ naked body online is one of consent and context, both of which were stripped away by the leak.

“Not to say either action is justifiable because they’re not,” Guest continued, “[but] if you taped it…that’s one thing. You taped and posted it? The double action there speaks to something else that is just very damaging…When you post, that’s a different action and that speaks to a different mindset or kind of mentality about that person that you captured that you chose to just exploit…That’s the further damage.”

“The big deal is yes, we sign up to do that; an actor signs up to be nude on stage. You don’t get more vulnerable than that,” Smallwood asserted. “You’re being nude with a a scene partner on stage—but also with your other scene partner, which is the audience,” he explains. “The relationship between artist and audience is really, really damaged in the society we live in right now, because there is no trust.”

The Price of the Ticket

Coincidentally, as social media was still buzzing over Williams’ bare physique, another drama played out on Broadway as industry legend Patti LuPone angrily confronted an audience member during a talkback for wearing a mask improperly.

“I pay your salary!” the audience member retorted.

Aside from that being untrue, the exchange was indicative of a greater culture of entitlement among ticketholders, a group Guest reminds us is still predominantly “old, rich, white people.”

“I think that there is that sense of entitlement,” she said. “It is that concept that they are allowed to do [what they want], because they are here, because they paid [for] this ticket, and that scales beyond even theater. If there is an art craft [or] there is an art form in front of you, and you paid for it, you [believe you] are allowed to do and be whoever you want to, because you paid for that ticket. And that’s just unfortunate and that’s just not fair. It’s just not right at all.”

The audience member who captured and posted Jesse Williams’ nude scene has yet to be identified, so their motives remain a mystery. However, for both Smallwood and Guest, it is impossible to explore the dynamic of entitlement further without also acknowledging the racial dynamics at play.

“I think that there is a racial element to it,” said Smallwood, who mentioned both McDonald and the auction blocks of the slavery era when discussing the incident. “[There’s] something about being on stage and being Black and being naked. Those connotations have very sinister tones to them from our history in this country. Our bodies have historically not been our bodies, so we’re seen as property or commodities—it’s like we’re sideshows. It’s different from simply being an actor, and being on stage as a character in telling a story.”

For Guest, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me came to mind. “As much as we are in conversation constantly about what it means to objectify, and to sexualize, and over-sexualize, and have this access to our bodies—to Black bodies—and to misuse and abuse…It’s sadly a weird reminder that a mass population is not. A larger population of people is not trying to do that work,” she said—but she considers the breach a much-needed reminder.

“We built and we’ve programmed and we’ve operated in that system, but that doesn’t always have to be the case,” she continued. “You’re not entitled to capture, and hold onto, and post and do what you will with the information or with the artists and their persons and their bodies beyond that. It’s not yours. We’re not yours.”

A Question of Consent

“Consent is not traditional, unfortunately,” says Guest, “and until it is traditional, people take advantage of opportunities like [Take Me Out] and take advantage of these situations…and that is painful.”

For those who remain confused about how the leak of a publicly performed nude scene constitutes a violation of consent, she explains: “It is a breach of consent as far as being up there expecting you will have an audience that’s going to adhere to the rules that are [agreed upon] and fully trusted to do the work that they’re going to do as far as keeping phones away and not recording any photography.”

But then, there’s the sharing of the recording.

“It is dehumanizing, because if you really considered the person, you wouldn’t post. You wouldn’t you wouldn’t record,” she continued. “If you really considered, as everyone else considered in the audience, that this was a person who was vulnerably putting themselves on stage in the setting, and all the different expectations and all the different arrangements and protocols [and] policies…we’re trusting that you’re going to also adhere to that and abide by the rules that we have set in place so that they can freely move in their artwork. The fact that you didn’t see this person as a person; the fact that you did decide to record and post, then you did not think about that…that’s the breach.”

Now, Take Me Out audiences will have to contend with an infringement on their own privacy for the remainder of the show’s run, as Second Stage Theater has upped security measures, installing a new infrared (read: thermal) camera system “to help its security team spot surreptitious camera usage by audience members,” reports the New York Times.

Whether the extra measures will cause an outcry from paying audiences remains to seen, but as theaters seek to combat not only similar leaks but piracy of their shows, use of the technology may become widespread; a leveling of the proverbial playing field, all thanks to the actions of a single audience member.

As for Williams, who will not only be continuing his run in Take Me Out but appearing in its television adaptation, “not really worrying about it,” as he told The Associated Press.

“I can’t sweat that,” he said. “We do need to keep advocating for ourselves. And it’s wonderful to see a community push back and make clear what we do stand for, what we don’t…Consent is important, I thought. So, let’s keep that in mind universally.”

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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