Seeing a celebrity’s name trending on social media often means one of two things: death or controversy. So, upon seeing the term “Jesse Williams” ranking high on Twitter, one may have assumed the worst: either the former Grey’s Anatomy star has become embroiled in something truly unsavoury, or he’s met a tragic, untimely end. Fortunately, the 40-year-old actor is alive and well. But the reason behind the sudden interest in his name is a delicate issue nonetheless.
Williams is currently making his Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out, portraying a baseball player who comes out as gay. Late on Monday, illicit fan footage from a performance was posted on social media, showing Williams fully nude while facing the audience. Though only seconds long, the video – and subsequent screenshots taken from it – have gone viral, with people wasting no time in making a slew of seedy jokes and remarks about Jesse’s “anatomy”. Some UK fans have even crudely enquired about whether the play will get a West End transfer once its run concludes in New York, specifically to catch this moment for themselves. Of course, these comments are for humorous purposes, without meaning to cause harm. But the act of filming Williams’s nude scene is an example of a dangerous violation of a performer’s rights.
The fact that the video was taken in the first place is a problem enough. As soon as someone in the crowd sneakily presses “record” on their device, it disregards the implicit agreement between performer and audience member: that what takes place in the theatre is for that moment alone. In terms of consent, Williams agreed to engage in nudity in the context of the theatre – a space in which the audience has the knowledge of why it’s happening, and where the character’s story is larger than one shocking moment.
Last month, Williams appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers to promote the production, and shared what the atmosphere in the theatre feels like during the scene. “It’s so intense, and the language is so dense that as soon as naked people come out, everybody gets quiet,” he explained to Meyers. “You can hear a pin drop.” Clearly, the moment is profound. But as soon as sloppy recordings get taken and pasted across Twitter, the possible depth of the nude scene evaporates. The message gets diluted, and the work gets cheapened.
Though much of the narrative surrounding the social media leak has been based in jest, it’s worth noting the different reactions that this leak may have generated if this had been a female actor’s body on display. In 2019, six-time Tony award-winner Audra McDonald spoke out, after a flash photo was taken during a nude scene while she was starring with Michael Shannon in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Rightfully, people chimed in with support when McDonald condemned the impromptu photographer on Twitter. But, much like McDonald, Williams didn’t consent to footage of his body to be captured forever, much less for untold numbers around the world reducing his performance to how he looks naked.
As of yet, Williams hasn’t responded to the leak – perhaps he has no issue with it, or perhaps he’s even thankful for the extra publicity. But moments like these set a dangerous precedent for the intimate experience of theatre. There are certainly conversations to be had about the accessibility of plays, and how some works should be made more widely available. Still, this is not a case that can be argued away with a claim of providing public service for the masses. Sharing footage is a serious breach of trust within the theatre space. It’s no laughing matter.