- Broadway revival “Take Me Out” raises questions about if straight actors should play LGBTQ roles.
- But Jesse Williams is well cast as the gay baseball superstar Darren Lemming.
- Jesse Tyler Ferguson is also essential to the success of the production.
On the surface, Jesse Williams is not much different from Darren Lemming, the baseball superstar he plays in “Take Me Out.”
He’s biracial and charming and handsome, and for much of his life, he played baseball. One or all of those things combined has probably helped him enter and thrive in the elite circles he frequents now as an actor and producer, who’s perhaps most recognizable for his fan-favorite role as Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Despite these commonalities, the media, including the New York Times, has wondered whether Williams, a straight actor, should play a gay character. He is more talented than the material he’s gotten in the past on “Grey’s Anatomy,” but it’s a valid question, particularly given how frequently Williams is marketed to women as a dreamy (and very heterosexual) heartthrob.
It’s a conversation that has been coming up regularly in Hollywood as more queer actors speak candidly about their casting experiences.
“If ‘flamboyant’ wasn’t in the description of the character, no one would see me, ever, for anything, which wouldn’t be so enraging if it went the other direction, but it doesn’t. Because straight men playing gay, everybody wants to give them an award,” Billy Porter, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019.
But Neil Patrick Harris, who married his husband David Burtka in 2014, told The Times in 2021 that he “would definitely want to hire the best actor” for any role.
“I’m not one to jump on to labeling. As an actor you certainly hope you can be a visible option for all kinds of different roles,” he said.
Williams has acknowledged this casting conundrum, telling Entertainment Weekly in March that as a Black man, he knows the conversation around authentic representation is necessary. “We have a white ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘Last Samurai’ and every other role, so I get that underrepresentation,” he said. “And people want to be able to be counted and be included.”
Still, he made the argument that the point of “Take Me Out,” like most art, isn’t only to regurgitate one’s lived experience. “This is a play that’s written by a Jewish man about a Black character,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “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.”
Insider attended a performance of Greenberg’s play in mid-April at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater in New York City, and it’s evident that Williams took his responsibility portraying a member of the LGBTQ community seriously. He is well-cast as a baseball superstar whose talent and charm have earned him a god-like reputation in the sport.
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.
Jesse Williams’ allure remains as strong on a baseball diamond as in a hospital corridor
“Take Me Out,” which opened April 4, centers Darren, a stellar professional baseball player, and what happens to him and his team — the fictional Empires — after he comes out as gay.
The script, viewed by Insider, calls Darren “a Black man who you could imagine had never suffered” and Williams told Entertainment Weekly that the character “doesn’t consider himself part of the gay community” and has been “straight presenting” before he makes the somewhat impulsive decision to share his sexual orientation with the world at a press conference.
Darren’s is a version of a coming-out story, there is no denying that. He instantly sees the impact that his revelation has had after the press conference when he tells his friend and teammate Kippy (Patrick J. Adams) that he senses other teammates “edging away” from him “as from a bad smell.”
But Darren’s confession is more than just a catalyst for introspection. He’s desperately trying to hold on to his god-like status even when it becomes clear that most of his peers and mentors no longer have a stake in his dreams. Unfortunately, in trying to do so, he grossly underestimates the power of racism and homophobia.
The dialogue in the play is dense and every word is important, but Williams portrays Darren’s fall to reality beautifully and non-verbally.
We see just how much he wants his life to stay the same when Darren awkwardly shoves Kippy for suggesting that his future might include a partner and kids. He’s a self-proclaimed narcissist who is so scared that coming out will change anything about his life that he literally pushes the thought of fulfillment outside of the world of baseball away with that small, defensive gesture.
We also see the shock Darren feels when it’s clear the team manager Skip (Ken Marks) isn’t going to fight to keep Shane Mungitt (Michael Oberholtzer) — the player who used explicit homophobic and racial slurs against Darren — from being reinstated on the team. It’s one of the first times Darren is forced to confront the fact that his life has changed whether he likes it or not.
Darren’s anger is palpable in the locker room showers before Shane’s first game back as Darren strides toward him to attack him, never breaking eye contact. “Take Me Out” has made headlines for the nudity in this scene, but watching it, the emotion that ripples through the audience has nothing to do with the fact that we’re looking at two naked men and everything to do with the horrifying attack that we can feel coming.
Williams is measured when portraying emotions that might not come as naturally to him as Darren’s captivating charm and aloofness. Darren doesn’t sob when he realizes he’s lonely, but his eyes tear up; and when he’s angry, his eyes tear daggers through his prey sharper than words.
When it’s clear Darren can no longer pass as godly, these choices keep him human even as the world around him spins out of control.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson shines as Mason Marzac, who comes into his own because Darren comes out
Williams has a lot to prove in his Broadway debut as Darren, and part of the reason he’s successful because of his platonic chemistry with stage veteran and “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Darren’s business manager Mason “Marz” Marzac.
This role, more than Williams’, benefits from being played by an openly gay actor who knows the struggle that many young people face because of their sexuality. Marz knows why it’s important that Darren doesn’t run away from baseball, because he’s facing the brutal realities of racism and homophobia. Gay people need Darren to keep playing so they can keep dreaming.
Ferguson’s lived experience makes all of Marz’s jabs at Darren feel earned. Marz has the right to call the gay jock out for not bothering to notice a lot of the homophobia that commoners in the queer community face. Ferguson and his character have presumably faced similar struggles, so Marz’s joy at discovering the sport of baseball through his client is that much sweeter.
Ferguson brings a lightness to the story that few others could. Just like Darren eventually feels safe to express his emotions to Marz, the audience knows it’s safe to laugh when the exuberant man is on stage.
Williams and Ferguson have a chemistry that makes Marz and Darren’s odd platonic pairing fit together easily, especially by the end of the story. Without Marz, Darren would probably crumble under the weight of the consequences of his coming out. Similarly, Williams’ performance benefits from Ferguson’s natural comedic talent.
At its core, “Take Me Out” aims to remind us that we are human beneath all of the labels we put on ourselves and others. It’s beautiful at times and messy at others but we should all keep playing the game.