Broadway Star André De Shields on ‘Hadestown,’ Tony Awards, Racism, Sexuality, and Fulfilling His Parents’ Dreams
The Daily Beast
April 29, 2019
André De Shields is marking his 50th year in show business in ‘Hadestown.’ In a candid interview with Tim Teeman, he talks coming out, racism, and fulfilling his parents’ dreams.
The actual color of his red dressing room, said André De Shields, was called “rapture.” It was three hours before a performance of the Broadway musical Hadestown, in which De Shields, as Hermes the narrator, would walk-swagger out onto the stage wearing the fitted, shiny suit hanging on the door in front of us, inviting the audience to listen to the “sad tale” of Orpheus and Eurydice.
If you go to the Walter Kerr Theatre, look at the audience around you watching André De Shields sing, speak, and dance, you will see smiles of wonder. That is his charisma and power.
In his cozy dressing room, with his precise, rich, deep voice, De Shields had some stories of his own to share, of celebrating 50 years in show business, of growing up in poverty in Baltimore, of coming out as gay, of facing racism on both Broadway and the gay scene, of success (first and famously in the title role of The Wiz in 1975), of fulfilling his parents’ thwarted ambitions, and of his own dedicated pursuit of excellence—which, for Hadestown, might finally yield him a Tony Award this year, following two previous nominations.
The painting of the dressing room was a perk written into his contract, he said, and the color was significantly named. Hadestown had been an “anointing,” the spiritually minded 73-year-old actor said, and he wanted to keep “all the rapturous elements of my life in the immediate vicinity. Red is my aura,” he confided. “I don’t know if you put much credence in astrology, but I gaze at the stars, because I believe the stars are gazing at me.”
De Shields is a Capricorn, he said, “an earth sign, and the color of earth in terms of astrology is red clay. It is also the color of the first chakra from which all the other colors take their seed.”
Not even Buddha had achieved Nirvana, De Shields noted, adding he was not a Buddhist himself, although “in the 1970s Buddhism became a subculture in the arts community. Many of us chanted, ideally achieving a music of peace, harmony, tolerance, and collaboration. I’m a pantheist. When people ask if I believe in God, I say, ‘Put an s on that.’ I believe in gods.”
In a 50-year, multi award-winning and award-nominated career, De Shields said he had been able to find purpose “where the only guarantees are rejection and insecurity. I have a talisman, a touchstone. It’s easy to become dismayed. I’m going to be hyperbolic, but there are golden stones that have created my path in this industry. And now, at 73, in Hadestown I am able to be part of this important, significant new song cycle. It puts me in mind of Robert Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience.”
Every night, performing Hadestown, he recognizes “the scales fall from the eyes” of some in the audience, “as if they’re becoming lighter, the burden lifted off their shoulders, the yolks being broken, questions answered, crises resolved, the catharsis they are experiencing.”
They are having experiences he has had, and which keep him going forward, De Shields said, which guarantees “at 73, 83, 93, 103, I will prevail.”
He is in great shape, I said. “That is something I do religiously too. I eat judiciously, exercise vigorously, and I pray consistently.” So he is religious? “I don’t want to be put in this straitjacket of religion and call it prayer. I am not praying to anything. This is prayer as a condition if your spirit, a condition of your minds which young people now call ‘woke.’”
It can also be a salve. “The chattering magpie of the mind wants to control us, particularly in this industry: ‘You don’t deserve this.’ ‘You’re too tall, too short, too skinny.’ ‘Your eyes are not the right color.’ ‘Your skin is not the right color.’ ‘You’re not educated enough.’ ‘You’re too educated.’ What about the quiet vice of cardinal truth that speaks to you? There’s so much distraction you can’t hear it, and you have to.”
De Shields has never had therapy. “A shrink for $100 for information I know intuitively? No. We are born sentient. We know everything we need to know. If you can calm the distractions, the knowledge is in you.”
That charisma and command of the Hadestown audience comes down to De Shields’ hope that he is “remembering for everyone in the audience. I am saying to the audience, ‘We are geniuses. We know everything we need to know, and we haven’t forgotten any of it, so let’s celebrate that.’”
Hadestown, for him, is “epic” with that word transformed into an acronym meaning Expansive, Primordial, Innovative, and Cathartic: “What we are doing is expansive, returning people to primordial emotions, encouraging them to innovate or reinvent themselves. I look out and see people uncontrollably sobbing or opening up.”
In De Shields’ mind, many things come in three parts. His career, for example, he sees as “part one is to have the dream, part two is the dream itself, part three to manifest that dream in an epiphany in the conscious world.” Art, for him, comes as a three-sided equation: “Entertainment is the first part, enlightenment the second part, and ecstasy the third part.”
De Shields’ charisma was noticed first when he was young by his aunts, uncles, and older siblings. He was nicknamed by them all “Professor”; one of his aunts told him he had been quiet, happy to be by himself, and behaved nicely. She also told him he had “precocious thoughts” and was “preternatural.” He was also nicknamed “Jelly Belly, because that’s what I had then.”
De Shields grew up, the ninth of 11 children, on Division Street, West Baltimore. “We were impoverished. You know the beauty of the poverty? You have to be told you’re poor. You don’t know it until compared to someone who has material things. Then you start to think, ‘Oh, we’re different.’ But there’s knowledge that poverty teaches you. Lessons.”
His mother, Mary, was a domestic worker, his father, John, a tailor. “He made lovely suits for other people who could afford it.” De Shields looked at a dressing gown. “He could take this robe and he could turn it into a lovely smoking jacket.”
When I asked if it was a happy household, De Shields said, “As an adult I now understand that it was a disciplined household. I now know we were not happy.
“It wasn’t corporal discipline, but it was definitely Christian, and it was definitely ‘Be responsible.’ It was definitely you never coming home to 11 children and two parents at the table at 6 every night. You learned how to cook, sew, and clean house because this is your version of the United Nations—and what’s going to best equip you in this world is how to negotiate and be self-sufficient.”
In his autobiographical stage show, Confessions of a P.I.M.P., De Shields said to get his “appropriate slice” of American pie, “I had to get out of Baltimore or die.” P.I.M.P. stood for Positive Individual Making Progress, he said.
In this excellent show, De Shields evoked the story of his life through song, dance, and storytelling, full of exuberance and piercing honesty. And, oh, the dancing.
De Shields said he was “the only hippie” from his family. “I grew up during the summers of love in ’64 and ’65. I’m the one who went to college [the University of Wisconsin-Madison]. I’m the one who brought white friends back to the ’hood. People said, ‘Is André crazy? But I’m the one who made it beyond 25, because growing up in Baltimore you had to check yourself, ’cause 25 is old age.
“Those communities were controlled by drugs, prison, and abandonment by the government, and then you’re told, ‘You’re lazy, you can’t do this.’ Now that rural white America is strung out on opiates, it’s not a crime, it’s a condition that needs to be resolved. When we growing up, we were criminalized.”
As a boy, he went to the local school two blocks away and then junior high school. But when it came to high school, De Shields went to Baltimore City College, still one of the nation’s leading high schools.
“At the time it was all-male, definitely predominantly white. What made it diverse were the young Jewish men going there.”
He had to take two buses to get there, then walk through a neighborhood “where people definitely looked at me as if I was a ne’er-do-well.”
De Shields noted that the song that closes out Act I of Hadestown, “Why We Build the Wall,” didn’t refer to President Trump’s real-life plan. The song was written many years ago and refers to the walls of our own making that constrain us. “It’s always something in here,” he said.
When De Shields was old enough to have an adult conversation with his parents, his mother told him that her lifelong dream had been to be a chorus girl. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. “They were just a few years away from the Emancipation Proclamation, and their point of view was ‘No decent colored daughter of mine is going to shuffle her way through life.’”
Similarly, De Shields’ father wanted to sing and was a beautiful tenor. “But his parents said, ‘How do you hope to be a responsible breadwinner for your family with such an insecure position in your work field?’ So both of them were discouraged by their parents. They deferred their dreams. Somewhere along the line of those 11 children that x and y chromosome of deferred dreams had to be part of the conception of one of those children. And I’m lucky No. 9. That’s the hunger you pass into the conceiving of your child—what was missing from your life.”
His introduction to arts and culture came from going to Baltimore’s Royal Theater cinema every Saturday. “In the late 1950s, when there was such a thing called ‘continuous showings’ at the cinema, there was no such thing as a latchkey child.” De Shields received a weekly allowance of 35 cents; 25 cents would get him into the Saturday continuous feature, the other 10 cents bought him a box of Milk Duds.
The first showing began at 9 a.m., with a black-and-white newsreel. Then there was the “coming attractions” of future films. “Then a cartoon. Then the feature film. More often than not, that would be a Western with a white hero: Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy and Dale (Evans) Rogers and their horse Trigger, Lash LaRue, and the Lone Ranger.
“With Flash Gordon, I always identified with Ming the Merciless. Although he was portrayed as a stereotypical evil Asian, because of the ‘politics of other,’ I certainly did not identify with Flash Gordon. I didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair. I felt like I must be a member of the other community that didn’t look like me but was treated like me.”
The cycle of movies lasted two hours, then began again and again, till 9 p.m., when De Shields and his friends would go home.
“One magical Saturday,” he recalled, the movie Cabin in the Sky showed. A friend just bought De Shields a small poster advertising the film, which he has put on his dressing room wall. “I was 9, and this was the first time I saw black faces on the big screen. I was gobsmacked. I was no longer the other, but the dominant one.”
He knew every one of the celebrities in the film from reading Ebony and Jet magazines; they were the heroes of parents and older siblings.
He had seen Eddie Anderson as Rochester, the butler on The Jack Benny Show, but never as the Hollywood star the film made him.
“Firstly, my heart swelled. Secondly, my head swelled, and thirdly, I had an epiphany. John William Sublett was also in the film. He was one half of the vaudeville act ‘Buck and Bubbles.’ Buck would play the piano, and Buck would dance his ass off on top of the piano.
“In the film, his and Lena Horne’s characters are trying to break up the marriage made in heaven of Eddie Anderson and Ethel Waters. He enters the saloon through swing doors, resplendent in white, head to toe with great sass. He has a cane, three-piece suit, watch, spats, the whole thing: what I call a shining man. Which I consider myself to be.” (He says he is from a long line of “shining men,” including “Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin.)
Sublett’s character danced, finishing on a flight of stairs. “My head was consumed in cumulus clouds,” said De Shields. “That just isn’t what happens in film. My epiphany possessed me. Everything external shuts down. I am enthralled, and a little voice says very clearly, not shyly, ‘André, that’s what you’re going to do.’”
From then on, De Shields was focused on “the fulfillment of my destiny and payment on the deferred dreams of my parents. That was my driving force. I thought, ‘I’m going to be the next Sammy Davis Jr.’ There was nothing else to think. He was the epitome of entertainment at the time. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do excellently, superlatively, without exception. Then he fell in love with May Britt, a white woman. Then it was, ‘Oh, behave, Sammy.’” When the couple married in 1960, their interracial marriage was illegal in 31 states.
De Shields references the “huge brouhaha” when Louis Armstrong was considered as the voice of King Louie, the orangutan in Disney’s 1967 movie of The Jungle Book. “The guy who did it was Louis Prima, a white man, who then imitated Louis Armstrong. Like, wait a minute, what’s going on here?
“Racist Americans thought the lyric ‘I want to be like you,’ meant black people wanting to be like white people. That couldn’t be further from the truth in The Jungle Book. The orangutan is expressing his admiration and envy of the little boy; he is saying he wants the same power to make fire.”
De Shields appeared in a theatrical version of The Jungle Book at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He played King Louie. “I was happy to sing that song. It has nothing to with racial preferences, but rather a desire to control a vital element of life.”
The first production De Shields appeared in was Raisin in the Sun, when he attended Wilmington College. He made his professional debut in the Chicago production of Hair, aged 23, and at 26 took the title role in The Wiz.
Over 50 years he has won and been nominated for multiple awards in Broadway and off-Broadway productions including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Blackberries, Saint Tous, Haarlem Nocturne, Play On!, The Full Monty, Prymate, Dream on Monkey Mountain, Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, and The Jungle Book.
De Shields has also appeared on various TV shows, including Sex and the City, and won special recognition awards (including from AUDELCO, honoring excellence in African-American Theatre). In 2007 he was awarded an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence, and already for playing Hermes in Hadestown has been nominated in the Drama Desk, Dream League, and Outer Critics Circle awards. He is also an adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
His parents are both dead, but De Shields recalled that his mother was “totally proud” of him. “She was very satisfied, vicariously, that I had lived her dream. She witnessed it.”
His father died at 50, when De Shields was 17, of a cerebral hemorrhage aggravated by cirrhosis of the liver, exacerbated by heavy drinking. “It affected me greatly, so much so I made it part of my interior architecture,” said De Shields. “People who encounter me can think I am being aloof, smug, arrogant, and supercilious. That’s because we have lost the gift and understanding of silence.”
Don’t let the confident showman, holding the Hadestown audience in the palm of his hand, fool you. De Shields said he was “a quiet and solitary man, alone for most of my working hours apart from having to come to the theater. If I don’t treat myself empathetically, how am I going to treat you or anyone else empathetically?”
The Tony Award nominations are announced on Tuesday morning, and De Shields is surely a contender for a supporting actor in a musical. His previous nominations were “exciting, but I didn’t feel bereft when I didn’t win. What’s important to me now…”
He gets up, and picks up a scrap of paper. “I’ve made some notes. We were 11 children, now that’s down to three. I am the youngest of those three. My two younger siblings have died. I am 73, my older surviving siblings are 75 and 79. What I would like is to receive a Tony Award and have a member of my family be aware of it.”
Again, this comes back to “paying the karmic debt” back to his parents and their deferred dreams. “My studio lessons were not from Lee Strasberg, but growing up with 10 siblings. I would like someone to see the reward of all that they shared.”
De Shields spoke powerfully of his own experiences of racism. “I’m a black American. There’s no way in the United States of America for a black man to reach the age of a septuagenarian and not to have experienced the evils of racism, if not on a daily basis depending on where you live, then certainly in the cycle of generations, including in my chosen profession.
“It’s very common these days to use the terms implicit bias and unconscious bias. And I believe it’s being used as a rationale, as an excuse, for individuals to not to deal with the racism that is as American as apple pie.
“When racist acts or thoughts are entertained, what I want to know is: When were you unconscious about doing it? I don’t want to hear anything about unconscious bias. What I would like to talk about are the biases we carry around as Americans that is part of the culture. We cannot get away from it. There has not been an attempt to heal the evil that is racism.”
That failure, said De Shields, is marked by inaction at the very top.
“We are now up to President 45, and not any one of those 45 presidents—all of whom have been men and all but two administrations have been those of white men—have made an active initiative to heal this festering sore we call racism. For hundreds of years, the dominant culture in the United States has been the beneficiary of racism, whether that be slavery or institutionalized favoritism.
“Those cultures that are not dominant have been victims of those very institutions. One part of the culture is silently suffering guilt, the other part of the culture is silently suffering shame. If we never expose that, if we never destroy the veil, if we never burn the illusion, then that’s going to be future of this country.”
I asked what his experience had been of racism on Broadway.
“Broadway has come around to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it’s come around after we dragged them screaming and kicking.” De Shields smiled wryly. “The Great White Way is not called that for racial reasons, but because many years ago it was electrified and it appeared as if it were daylight all the time. But it’s a marvelous metaphor if you want to discuss racism, because for so many generations we of color have been taught this is an inhospitable environment.”
De Shields said Broadway was “inhospitable” when he arrived in New York in 1973, but that securing the part in The Wiz was “a game changer for Broadway. It opened a door an opportunity, and it showed loudly and clearly to those individuals who had been treated inhospitably that ‘Look, you are finally and emphatically represented on the Great White Way. Come and appropriate this culture just as this culture has for hundreds of years appropriated yours.”
“We have to be twice as good to get half as much,” De Shields said of the experience of people in color working in show business and many other professions. “That has not changed, and here we are in 2019.”
De Shields said the racism he had experienced in his career had never been overt or vocal. “The explanation always is ‘We’re going in a different direction.’ You want to say, ‘Just explain to me why I’m not getting this gig, so I can understand and do my homework. But it’s never explained.’”
Did he ever confront or challenge it directly?
“No, that’s not the way—to reference Hamilton—‘to get into the room’ where it’s happening. If it’s all about confrontation, then it will be denied and you will be forever persona non grata.
“The method that worked for me was to understand that the greatest work I can do is to be the best André that I can possibly be. You have to get beyond ‘living the dream.’ That’s part of the illusion. Once you live the dream, you have to change the reality that is the result of living the dream. Because the dream is segregated. The dream is racist.
“You have to be the change in the world you want to see. To change the world is hardly ever a result of confrontation, it more often than not is a result of achieving excellence. Then you change a few minds, you change a few hearts, and they change a few minds, and they change a few hearts and people become enlightened.”
“Love is important to me,” De Shields said. “Falling in love is not.”
Was it ever? “Yes, it’s just no longer important to me. That is one of those illusions I have deliberately burned. ‘Falling in love’: just listen to the idiom. I don’t want to ‘fall’ in love, it’s like stumbling over a pothole. I want to love. Those important men and women in my life have loved me into consciousness.”
When I asked if De Shields was bi, gay, straight, or something else, he said, “I have to use language people will understand. I’m gay. But with these cultural revolutions going on, that label needs to go away for everybody. One has to be received how one describes oneself, especially black men who are still fighting against such prejudice. Our flesh may be free but our minds are enslaved still. There are still shackles on our emotions, which is why black men will love and have sex with other black men but will not self-identify as gay because ‘gay’ is a political construct devised by white male homosexuals who can look to the world like the dominant white heterosexual male for whom the world is made.
“When it comes to sexuality and gender, we know who we are. It’s how we present it to the rest of the world that means it gets beaten into something else if it’s not considered normative.”
De Shields laughed gently, recalling playing as a little boy in the patch of dirt at the back of the house. He remembers an adult member of the family next door saying to him, “Hey, you little fairy.”
“I didn’t know what these words mean,” De Shields said; just that this neighbor was addressing him. He made it a mission to find out what a “fairy” was. He did, and thought, “Oh, I’m being identified by someone else.”
“That’s how we grow up: people putting appellations on to us. When we buy into it, that’s when we start forgetting the knowledge we are born with.”
As a teenager he worked in a library and read books about homosexuality, meaning he both understood the homophobic insults he endured, “but also how myopic medical science had gotten homosexuality.”
Getting involved with theater “was definitely the introduction I needed to know that I was not alone. I never ever thought I was the aberration because in my ’hood everybody grows up knowing an André. We’re everywhere.”
But he didn’t see his experience reflected in too many places. De Shields said in all his readings of the celebrated August Wilson, “and this isn’t to take away from his genius, I’ve appeared in his plays, but people like me are not reflected in any of his plays.”
Women come up to him all the time, De Shields said, while men keep their distance. “Growing up in Baltimore, I had to have girlfriends up until I was 19,” he said. Then he spent a junior year abroad in Denmark, where he had a significant relationship with a woman, Ruth, “who looked at me and saw my interior self. She told me, ‘It’s alright if you love men, just don’t stop loving me.’ That was like boiiing.” He made a motion of a flash of self-revelation. “She was telling me there was nothing wrong with me being gay.”
In Confessions of a P.I.M.P, De Shields recalled that by 1979, the sexual revolution was well underway; he was confident, fit, and “getting laid” every night. Then he talked about the impact of HIV and AIDS on his group, and how his friends came to be “counted”: Julio, Jesse, Ron (“who danced on mysterious rhythms… until his legs shriveled into fragile reeds unable to support even his shrunken torso”), Brian, whose skin was “eaten by purple blotches,” and many others known by first names, including Alan, Alvin, Barry, Carl, Paul, Quentin, Winston, Javier, and Zane.
De Shields had two significant relationships; one for 17 years with a partner, Chico, who died of AIDS-related lymphoma, and another with a partner named John, who he was with for two years and who died of AIDS-related meningitis in 1995.
“I would like to be with someone, but I think I am going to be single,” De Shields said of the future. “The someone I want to be with is a fantasy. And until reality can match fantasy, it’s a fools’ game.”
In his dressing room, De Shields also spoke of the racism he had experienced on the predominantly white LGBT scene. In 1980, in a Hollywood gay bar, he was called a “n—er queen” by a white gay barman, apparently angry De Shields was questioning why a particular mixed drink wasn’t available. The barman said, “I’m tired of you arrogant n—er queens.” De Shields said: “A black man who’s confident. Forget his sexuality. He’s ‘arrogant.’”
Of course there is racism in the LGBT community, said De Shields. “Because we are in America and the seed of the seed of American culture is racism. What you’re fighting for is inclusion in a racist culture.”
What, for him, had been the impact of cultural landmarks like Moonlight and Pose? “The excellence of the art is beside the point,” said De Shields. “What they have done is made it easier for some black people to identify as gay and trans. But the white gay racist still looks with utter disdain at us as the scum of the earth, which is what their heterosexual counterparts do.”
While “very fulfilled,” De Shields has much more he wants to do in his career. “That is very much dependent on how long I will carry the breath of life.” He thinks of his mortality, but has concluded that as he didn’t fear being born he shouldn’t fear “any process of being unborn.”
His personal crusade is “to break the “Methuselah Code,” and trying to figure out how he can live beyond the 969 years of the famous biblical figure.
He has surmised a possible answer via two stage door experiences. In 1993, a lady who had seen him in the original Wiz came to see him in that year’s revival. She bought her mother (who had taken her to the original show) and her daughter. “Three generations,” said De Shields. He recalled another couple who saw him in Hadestown in London last year. The lady in the couple recalled De Shields performing in Ain’t Misbehavin’ 40 years previously.
James Harkness, who plays Paul Williams in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on Broadway, thanked him recently for being an example to emulate. “Many people refer to me as a keeper of the flame. It’s humbling,” said De Shields.
Perhaps, De Shields thinks, the way he breaks the Methuselah Code is through his work, its influence and legacy extending into the future.
“Maybe Methuselah didn’t live for 969 years, but his reputation did and that’s what’s important,” said De Shields.
Later that evening De Shields went out on to the Walter Kerr stage, and as he dance, spoke, and sang, another Hadestown audience looked on in wonder. Roll on the next 896 years.