Last month, I was lucky enough to have seen Take Me Out on Broadway, a play set in 2002 and focusing on the fictional major league baseball team “The Empires.” When the star player of the team Darren Lemming, played by Grey’s Anatomy actor (or Detroit Becomes Human actor for my fellow gamers) Jesse Williams, comes out as gay, he is faced with what it means to be vulnerable and open in an environment filled with toxic masculinity. While he has a few friends on the team who accept him, there is still an obvious rift in how other members begin to act around him - from harassing him in the locker room to outright calling him the F-slur. As Darren navigates this new territory, he must also come to terms with and rise above the hate he receives from friends and teammates alike in order to break the cycle of toxicity.
I loved this play. I truly did. The acting was phenomenal, intense, and raw. I was blown away by the story and the storytelling. The thing is, I found it hard to stay in the story with the audience around me. I grew up going to the theatre to see shows frequently, both local and on Broadway. I’ve performed in a number of shows as well, even on zoom when the pandemic took live theater away from us. The thing I’ve always loved about live theater is the energy it creates and the connections it forms in the moment, both between the actors on stage and between the performers and the audience. It’s a special bond that you can’t experience anywhere else. But ever since live theater has returned, I’ve noticed a shift in the audience and how they act. Maybe the pandemic turned people more self-centered, maybe being online consistently for two years ruined people’s social skills, or maybe they just simply forgot how to behave courteously during a live performance. But with nearly every live show I’ve seen since the return of theater, I’ve had a bad audience experience. From having phones out or going off throughout the show, to people getting up and down during the most quiet and tender moments, to those around me having full on conversations or a running commentary during the performance. It’s frustrating, to say the least. All of this came to a head during the performance of Take Me Out that I saw. The show is about coming out, and in such a testosterone-dominated environment as professional sports, it focuses heavily on toxic masculinity as well. Darren is trying to change that attitude amongst his teammates throughout the show, while also trying to change himself and how he responds to bigotry in a given moment. The audience, however, couldn’t seem to grasp this concept and as such behaved in what I felt was a disrespectful manner during the show’s most intimate scenes.The thing with Take Me Out is that there are full-frontal nudity scenes onstage when the baseball players are in the locker room. Some argue that nudity to that degree is not necessary on the stage, but in my opinion these moments were not gratuitous. The show is about male vulnerability and there are few spaces where one is more vulnerable than in a locker room. As audience members, we understood coming into this show that there would be nudity, from the Playbill stuffers warning against photography and video taking of any kind, to our phones being magnetically sealed in pouches upon entry, to the signage in the lobby. Though there were phones going off and people chattering throughout the show and even snickering during the nude scenes, my main source of hurt as an audience member came from the couple behind me. This couple had been making comments back and forth to each other pretty much throughout the entire show, so already they were ticking me off. But the moment that really stung was when Jesse Williams walked out fully naked for the first time, during one of the more intense moments of the show. As the audience got over the initial shock of a fully naked man walking on stage, the couple behind me did not recover as quickly. The boyfriend leaned over to his girlfriend and jokingly said “Merry Christmas,” to which she responded “I know!” Just a few words spoken by strangers in passing, and yet they left a bad taste in my mouth. It was as if she had only come to the show to see the male actors (or maybe even just Jesse Williams/Dr. Jackson Avery) naked on stage, not caring about the queer story it was telling. In this moment, the character was confronting the bigoted teammate who had harassed him for being gay and biracial, but the couple behind me chose to sexualize a vulnerable man in that moment instead. With the history behind sexualizing queer people, it just made me feel so angry and upset that people would do that during a live theatre performance. It was as if they had taken in none of the play’s messages about tolerance and acceptance, or the overt message about sexualizing gay men in the locker room. I just hope that people remember how to be decent audience members sooner rather than later (an ounce of critical thinking when watching theatre would be nice as well).