André De Shields Speaks Truth

Interview by Sandi Durell . . .

When I received notice about Black History Month and the performers who were participating at Flushing Town Hall in its virtual 3-part stream of artists this month, I was excited to note André De Shields as one of them. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting, interviewing, photographing Mr. De Shields when he won the much deserved Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for his portrayal as Hermes in Broadway’s Hadestown. In 2020, Mr. De Shields received a Grammy for Musical Theater Album for Hadestown, along with the AUDELCO for Lifetime Achievement and an honorary Doctor of Arts Degree from Boston Conservatory at Berklee. This was an eye-opening opportunity to hear his inner most thoughts about his upcoming portrayal as Frederick Douglass in “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” as he explores the life and achievements of this great emancipator on Friday, February 26 at 7pm. Tickets HERE.

SD – Your career spans a significant number of years beginning in Chicago in 1969 in Hair, to a Broadway debut in Warp in 1973, to your award-winning role in 1975 on Broadway in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and you even managed to squeeze in choreographing two Bette Midler musicals in those earlier days. Where did all this energy come from and when you look back on the years of the 70s, what was giving you the most satisfaction?                                                                  

AD: Thank you for first posing a question about energy. During the current moratorium on singing as if no one can hear you, dancing as if no one is watching and living fully as if your life really does matter, I’ve enjoyed participating in the occasional master class, delivering keynote addresses and conducting truly virtual baptisms of the spirit. At the core of each of these encounters is the question of energy. Humanity experiences many complications when dealing with the concept of energy, because we believe that we invented it. When, indeed, energy is the eternal soul of the universe: dynamic, explosive, unpredictable. We are but conduits of universal energy, and if we make an inviolable covenant with the universe to pursue only those blessings that are embossed with our individual names, then we’ll each possess all the energy necessary to fulfilling our life’s purpose.
 
2.  SD – Now, you’re a major star in the theater world and an important spokesperson when it relates to leaders of influence in the Black community. You’ve chosen to portray Frederick Douglass in this Flushing Town Hall event airing February 26. There have been many important Black Americans who have made significant contributions to history like Richard Allen, Booker T. Washington, Robert Abbott – – Why Frederick Douglass?  How has he influenced your thought process and what would you like viewers to take away from your performance embracing Douglass? 

AD: Research reveals that Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in February 1818, and is believed to have died in February 1895. This morsel of information alone was sufficient reason for Carter G. Woodson–who in 1916, as editor, introduced The Journal of Negro History–to create Negro History week in 1926, honoring both Frederick Douglass, the Great Abolitionist and Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, who shared February as a birth month. Moreover, Douglass, born into slavery, lived through the tapestry of tectonic changes that make the nineteenth century prophetic of 2021: human bondage, the industrial revolution, the emerging of the capitalist economy, the Civil War and the resulting series of Reconstructions, not to mention the epidemic of tuberculosis. My performance as Douglass greatly relies on the tool of anachronism, and I mean that in its ancient Greek sense, “against time.” I will appear as Douglass’ doppelgänger and speak of events that defined his life and others he could not have experienced; all for the purpose of illustrating how the ship of history lists toward progress. I would like for the viewers to become imbued with nostalgia for the future.   
 
3.  SD – Back to more recent times . . . you’ve performed in many Broadway and off-Broadway theater productions (Play On, The Full Monty etc.), you’re a director, an educator and very recently you were seen as Anton Ego in Ratatouille: the Tik Tok Musical and . . . you’ve got an upcoming role in Charles Busch’s new film “The Sixth Reel.” How do you stay inspired when you take on a role especially during these challenging times? 

AD: Curiously, the answer to this question is found in the asking –“these challenging times?” These challenging times demand of us that we physically distance ourselves from one another but remain socially involved in the renovation of American democracy, which has yet to be true to either the spirit or word of its meaning–government of the Peoples, by the Peoples, for the Peoples through an equitable system of representation. These challenging times ask us to temporarily postpone the masque and wear the mask in anticipation of participating in the Mass. These challenging times require us to give to the world that is yearning to die, the time to do just that. And to the world that is  yearning to be born, we must offer assistance.
 
4.  SD – What advice would you give to a younger generation of actors now that life in the theater has changed?  Do you see theater as we knew it returning or will it be a different kind of theater? 

AD: Since the torment that was September 11, 2001, we’ve embraced the aphorism, “If you see something, say something.” I believe if you know something, share something. And this is what I know. In a world whose zeitgeist is undergoing unprecedented transformations, it is not enough to identify simply as an actor; one must be, at least, an actor/activist, an actor/advocate, an actor who understands that sheltering-in-place actually means resting-in-action. If theatre as we know it returns unchanged, then we will have squandered that most precious currency – – The Teaching Moment and our legacy will be minimal. However, if we bring ourselves to carpe donum–“seize the gift” of The Teaching Moment, everyone will discover his/hers/their place in The Story. Theatre must not come back; theatre must come Black, come diverse, come equitable, come inclusive, come for everybody. For if one of us is chained, then none of us is free.

5- SD – If there is anything you would like to add that you feel is significant and want readers to know, please do so. 

AD: Yes. This is not the end; this is the beginning. Theatre makers of the world, unite! Ubuntu!

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