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Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

"Mr. De Shields is a tireless performer. His stylized, rhythmic patter keeps the momentum of the performance building, and his singing, in a voice that seems to relish every full syllable, runs the gamut of shadings," raved New York Times jazz and pop critic John S. Wilson in August 1980. The occasion was André De Shields' cabaret act "Maximum Contrast" at the Grand Finale on Manhattan's upper west side.

Forty years later, that same review could have described De Shields' sold-out show for Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series. He has a seductive and spellbinding allure, conveying just as much through gazes and gestures as melodies and lyrics. Watching De Shields command the stage, audiences can even glimpse elements of the characters he originated on Broadway. The Wiz (The Wiz), the Viper (Ain't Misbehavin'), and Hermes (Hadestown) course through his blood like the songs he sings.

Three nights before De Shields brought some sizzle to a wintry January night in New York, the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hadestown (2019) won the GRAMMY Award for "Best Musical Theater Album". It was the latest triumph for De Shields and his portrayal of Hermes. This role also helped Hadestown win the 2019 Tony Award for "Best Musical" and brought De Shields a Tony Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and Drama Desk Award for "Best Featured Actor in a Musical". Indeed, De Shields contours his characterization of Hermes with regal grace.

"Whatever role I inhabit, regardless of the status or caste of the character, I bring a sense of nobility because that is what we all share, the nobility of humanity," he says. "That has been held in disdain for many years and, although I don't regret any of the characters that I've been able to create, Hadestown is the first time I was able to bring out, in full force, my erudition — to bring out the African in me.

"Hermes in Hadestown is a griot. A griot is a storyteller. We borrow that term from Francophone West Africa. Because there are sexual genders in romance languages, if you're a man, you're a griot, and if you're a woman, you're a griotte, but the service is the same. You are the keeper of the flame. Oral history is your raison d'être. It's your metier. You keep the history of the individual, of the family, of the community, of the royalty, of the nation, of the tribe, of the continent, of the globe. You have a protege, and you pass that information to your protege because when a griot dies, you're losing a library, so you must pass that information to someone else so that the knowledge continues.

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

"That is who Hermes is in Hadestown, and that is why the character is so well-beloved by the audience because he's there in the service of the audience: 'What's going on now?' Hold on. Look this way. I can answer that. Now go back to the action. 'How is this going to end?' Don't rush to the end. Take this a step at a time because we're learning something, which is why the show ends with 'We're gonna sing it again and again and again and again' until we, as a species, learn the lesson — that love will remain lost if you have not found faith."

Faith has guided De Shields ever since he landed his first professional role in the Chicago production of Hair while studying at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. At the time, future Tony-winning actor Joe Mantegna was a fellow "Tribe" member. "In 1969, I began my professional career as an actor doing the play Hair in Chicago," Mantegna recalls. "That production proved monumental in various ways, among them the fact that the actress who played Jeanie to my Berger is and has been my wife for over 50 years since then. One other monumental thing is the fact that the show brought André De Shields into both our lives. We all wound up living in the same building for many years, and it was André who first introduced us to the Organic Theatre of Chicago, a company that my wife and I were members of for five years and had a significant impact on our lives. André is one of the most talented and unique individuals I've ever met, and speaking for both my wife and I, we are forever grateful he is such an important and beloved part of our lives."

From choreographing Bette Midler's first group of Harlettes in 1971 to directing and choreographing productions of Ain't Misbehavin' for the Crossroads Theatre Company in 2011 and 2018, De Shields has impacted several generations of both veteran and aspiring actors, singers, and dancers. He's been a distinguished Visiting Professor at Southern Methodist University, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and Morehouse College. He has also presided as the Harold Clurman Visiting Professor at CUNY-Hunter College, as well as Adjunct Professor of Shakespeare at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he earned his Master of Arts degree in African American Studies (1991) and created an intensive 13-week workshop called "Extreme Performance: From Ancient Africa to Postmodern America" (2005).

Performing opposite De Shields in Hadestown, actor/vocalist and Black Theatre Coalition co-founder T. Oliver Reid has watched him wield a special kind of inspiration through his role as Hermes. "There's no real way to qualify or quantify the influence that André De Shields has on mere mortal," says Reid. "Once he has spun his web of wisdom, every morsel for goodness that comes from his mouth has to be written down and remembered as if history will be defined by the moment, by the writing down of his words. He is the piper who reminds us of how connected we are to the universe and that, like blackstrap molasses, we cannot rush goodness."

Just a few days after performing in a virtual concert produced by the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts, De Shields visited with PopMatters where he re-traced the "breadcrumbs" that led him from Baltimore to Broadway. The insights he's gleaned from surviving and thriving onstage for 51 years are as multi-faceted as the roles he's played. Class is in session, readers. Professor De Shields will see you now ...

Earlier this summer, you helped paint the Black Lives Matter mural in Harlem. What range of emotions did you feel standing on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard that afternoon?

The impulse I want to speak to is wanting to be part of the protest that was happening in the street. I had a long and deep conversation with myself because I've been around for three-quarters of a century and I've had my opportunity to protest in the streets when I was an undergraduate in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was one of the hotbeds of political evolution and revolution in the late-'60s. In considering that, I realized that I had done my part because before that revolution during the summers of love, we had the Vietnam War to deal with — we got rid of that.

It was my generation in the late-'60s who were attending state universities that changed the terrain by shutting down the campus until the powers-that-be created a Black Studies program, so I felt fulfilled that that was my gift to the young people who were now back in the streets, understandably, demanding more than that because they have had a chance to learn about themselves through those courses, through those departments. They weren't there when I was in college.

The second thought was: let me not steal their fire. This is their destiny. This is their path. They've surrendered to whatever it takes to achieve their goals. What can I do to support that? Then the mayor said there was going to be a mural, Black Lives Matters, not only painted on 5th Avenue adjacent to the "orange alien's" [Trump] tower but also on one of the major boulevards of Harlem — Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard. Hadestown along with Ain't Too Proud were the Broadway ambassadors, if you will, for that challenge. I thought, This is how my participation can make a difference and I'm not stealing anyone's fire. If anything, I'm helping to build a greater fire.

I say that because celebrity, the modest amount of celebrity that I have, can be a blessing and it can also be a curse, so I'm very careful to abide by one of my cardinal rules if I'm going to be involved with a project — can the project benefit from my participation? If the answer's "no", I stand back. If the answer is "yes", I go right in. So that was my opportunity to go in, help make a difference, and be considered by my young colleagues as being in the trenches with them.

During Queer/Art/Film's discussion about Cabin in the Sky (1943), you talked about growing up in Baltimore and going to the Royal Theatre. One of the shows you saw there was the Motown Revue. How did Little Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and all the other acts who performed in the Revue make an imprint on you at that point in your life?

Well this is the power of destiny. We all know that the message is in the music. It doesn't matter what generation of music we're talking about. It's just that the breadcrumbs that we find on our path, so that we can arrive at the home we ultimately reside in as adults, are in the music that we listen to. Then, it was listening to it on AM radio ... and of course the power of Motown is still reverberating globally.

The Royal Theatre was a cathedral for us. It was located on Pennsylvania Avenue, which was the cultural spine of inner city Black Baltimore. It was built probably in the '30s, so it still had a palatial patina to it. Because it was in what we then called the ghetto, it wasn't cared for greatly by the city or by the owners, but still it's where we went to reaffirm who we are — and that was prior to being "Black is Beautiful". We were still "Negroes" and "colored" then. We weren't really in touch with our African cores, if you will, which is what we are definitely in touch with today.

The Motown Revue was a study in culture, politics, economy, and history about the African American and at that time it was before any one of the individual artists had established themselves as an independent nebula or galaxy so the Revue was Little Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Martha & the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations ... I mean your mind is being blown, right? [laughs]

When one was experiencing that Revue, and when as a young boy I would sit there — now it's a movie house, but concerts were played there also — then the movie of my life would start unfolding. To be able to grow up in the industry that I've chosen as my profession — and if the situation is right — I can say "Hey, Diane! Hey, Wonder! Yo, Smokey!" Message is in the music. Power is in the music. Evolution is in the music.

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

The next place I'd like to go with you is Chicago, 22 October 1969. That was the night the musical Hair opened at the Shubert Theatre. It was your first professional role. What's the timeline between when you first heard about Hair and being cast in the Chicago production?

I heard about Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical when still an undergraduate at the university, so this would have been 1968 when the Off-Broadway show moved from the Public Theatre to Broadway. Shortly after the Broadway opening, the first sit-down production outside of New York was Los Angeles. The next sit-down production was Chicago at the Shubert Theatre, what was then the Shubert Theatre. It's no longer the Shubert Theatre. It's the PrivateBank Theatre. Now whose money is that? [laughs]

At any rate, this is July/August 1969. I'm on campus and of course my liver is just quivering because I want to be in Chicago auditioning for this show. I just finished doing the debut performance for the Madison Community Theatre. Their first show was The Fantasticks. I was cast as El Gallo. This was long before we were dedicated to the doctrines of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which got exponentially expanded when I did Hair, but the story I'm trying to tell is I didn't have any money. I needed to get down to Chicago, two-and-a-half hours away. Bus trip — three hours.

I shared my yearning to audition for the show with my cohort of friends. We were in the Rathskellar, which is where the pinko commies from the east coast would hang out. Here's the deal I offered — see, I'm being transactional — "If you contribute to my round trip bus fare, and I get the show, because I'm planning to be a star someday, you will participate in my success in perpetuity." Now of course my young male friends, they were like [groans]. My young female friends went into their purses, three of them, and they put their change on the table. It must have been somewhere around ten dollars. These three ladies are still in my life. When I get together with them, they pull out this tattered piece of paper which is the IOU that I wrote.

I buy the ticket. I go down to Chicago. I'm totally wet behind the ears. I'm 100% green. There is a line circling the theater of people like myself who want to audition for [director] Tom O'Horgan. The number I get is somewhere in the four-hundreds, so I have to come back the next day. I didn't have a beard then, but I'm scratching my chin. What am I going to do? I only have this one ticket.

Now this is the summer of 1969, the last summer of love. It was one of the safest times in the United Plantations of America. So what did I do? I slept on a bench in Grant Park and got up the next day and went into the Art Institute, which is one of the loveliest museums in this entire country, and just used the public bathroom, did a "PTA", and went back, got a chance to audition. I won a callback, so I used the ticket to return to the campus and on my bended knee I said, "I got a callback. I have to beg for more money to get back!"

Long story short: I did the callback. I was chosen for Hair, my first professional show. I went back to the college and explained it to my advisors because I was in my last semester. And, because even then I was living an anointed life, they decided I could do my last semester as an independent study off campus, as long as I did the work, came back for the examinations, etc. ... and here I sit with Christian John Wikane!

It's interesting to read the reviews of Hair at the time. The Chicago Tribune's review of the show explained how the establishment were not sure what to make of all the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. The critic wrote, "It is downright obscene and irreverent — which is the whole point of its being." I love the last line of his review, which is "Sorry, we just can't hate a show like this!" What aspects of Hair resonated with you, personally?

Both of those elements, although I would never use the term "obscene" to describe Hair. It was challenging. It was daring. It was in your face. It was counter-culture revolutionary but it was not obscene. The word "obscene" is used, I think, only because of the thirty-second nude scene which closes Act One. Today, 2020, puritanical America still has not made peace with its nakedness, with its nudity, which is the way we come into the world and, if not for the art of the mortuary, it's the way we will leave the world.

Liberating. That was my experience with Hair. I use this term advisedly — it was religious, because at that time is when America began this hate-love relationship with agnosticism, religiosity, and atheism. It was all experimental and experiential. I was becoming an adult. I was discovering what aroused me and what didn't. I was discovering my sexual orientation. I was testing everything that I encountered. I experimented with drugs. I experimented with sex. I experimented with relationships. I experimented with politics. I experimented with the whole construct of sovereignty, which is quickly disappearing from geo-politics, which is why everyone is running scared and panicked.

The results of the experiments are still resonating in my life. I established some long-standing and lifelong friendships from those days, not only in Hair but from being an undergraduate in college. I have turned over so many predilections and predispositions and biases and prejudices and lessons, which is why today I can say here are my three cardinal rules about sustainability and longevity, because now I know.

Charlo Crossley was one of your castmates in Hair. A couple of years later, she became a Harlette but you got to the Harlettes first! I know Bette Midler used to perform at Mister Kelly's in Chicago. How would you have seen Bette for the first time and then been asked to choreograph the nascent version of the Harlettes?

This is one of those stories that is so ordinary, it's almost incredulous. I shared the debut of my professional career with Charlo Crossley, with Freida Williams —people might recognize that name — but also with Joe Mantegna. Joe Mantegna and his girlfriend at the time, Arlene Vrhel, who is now Mrs. Joe Mantegna, and I lived in the same residential complex. I was on a first floor unit and they were on a second floor unit. Through Michael Federal, who was playing Claude in Hair at the time, Joe had met Bette Midler.

Bette Midler had come to Chicago to play at the Happy Medium and had made this wish aloud in the presence of Joe and Arlene: "I miss my mother's potato salad. Oh, I wish I could get some potato salad!" Arlene said, "Come by. I'll make potato salad." She did. They invited me up. The four of us are sitting around eating potato salad and Bette lets go with another thought out loud: "Oh, I wish my girls could dance." "What do you want them to do, Bette?" "Well I just don't want them to stand like zombies at the microphone." I said, "Well I can throw down. Why don't you invite me by, we'll give a look and we'll work it out." She said okay.

I went by the Happy Medium and the three ladies were dressed in black so there was no mistake who the star of the show was. They were wearing tight pencil skirts — very attractive — and off-the-shoulder black halters. These are three white ladies so the contrast was lovely. The three ladies were Melissa Manchester, Gail Kantor, and Merle Miller. They were "oohing" and doing exactly what Bette wanted them to do so I just added a little bit of spice — "step touch, step touch, turn around, stop" — just to give it a little movement. We're not detracting from the Divine Miss M, but we're making the entire stage alive.

I was able to share with them some of my own creations, such as "wet eggs", something I created for the Harlettes — one of my pieces of choreography Bette has stood by all these years. Whenever you see "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", that's my work. When you see them put their hands on their hips like this and they do the "step touch", I asked them not to grab their hips but to pretend that they were holding wet eggs, so it would be soft and sexy, that kind of thing.

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

Once you got to New York, I know Bette brought you on to choreograph her Broadway run at the Palace Theatre in December 1973 ...

Right, well first there was the show at the Copacabana when it was on 60th Street. We had put it together in Vancouver, Canada and then brought it into the Copacabana and then "Clams on the Half Shell" followed that.

How did you and [co-choreographer] Michael Bennett achieve a unified vision between your ideas and Bette's ideas for the Palace Theatre show?

Well, Bette wasn't convinced that I was showing her off at her best, let me put it that way. When I choreograph, I start on the left foot. That disturbed her. [laughs] She said, "Are you left-handed?" I said, "No, I'm right-sided." She called in Michael Bennett to look at what I had been doing. While he was there, he brought a little of the razzle dazzle that Bette required for her work. We got along well and there was no competition. There was no sense of ownership and the rest obviously is history because it was all about the jewel in the crown who was the Divine Miss M. Charlo Crossley, Sharon Redd, and Robin Grean were the Harlettes at that time.

Now from what I understand, the show Warp is what brought you from Chicago to New York.

Yes! Warp — the world's first science fiction episodic adventure. I think that's the way it was marketed.

The Drama Critics Circle in Chicago awarded you "Best Actor" for that show, but once you got to New York it lasted only eight performances on Broadway.

We did two weeks of previews and then we did a week of performances.

What really strikes me is an interview you did with the Associated Press a few years after Warp closed. The critics in New York hadn't been too kind to the show. You said, "That's the reason for my staying here in New York — the critics. The adversaries. I said to myself, If these people can be so wrong, I have to stay here. You look for the adversary. The only way to defeat him is to stay. You don't run away." How did you cultivate that philosophy so early on in your career?

Now, the answer I can give you only takes four words. The answer is: I'm a black man. Okay? For a long part of my life, I knew nothing but adversaries, people who hated me because I was Black, people who hated me because I was queer, people who hated me because I was educated, people who hated me because I was arrogant, people who hated me because I was beautiful. As a Black individual, one of the tools in my tool kit is to be able to laugh in the face of adversity. Otherwise, I'd be crying in the face of adversity and that ain't gonna get you anywhere.

When I arrived in New York in Warp — remember it's episodic — my character, "Xander the Unconquerable, Ruler of the Sixth Dimension", doesn't appear until episode two. We had just closed in Chicago in December '72 and we arrived in New York, January '73, so I looked like that character. My head is shaved and I'd left a four-inch circle of hair right in the crown to which we attached an eighteen-inch warlock.

I arrive in New York, the citadel of self-expression, center of the universe. I'm walking down the street in my silver platforms and my hot pants and my red halter that has "LOVE" written across it and people are crossing over to the other side of the street! I'm going, Wait a minute. This is New York! Oh, I see ... You're really provincial. That's when I came to the conclusion that you just quoted — if these are the rulers, if these are the watchmen, then somebody had better watch the watchmen. I choose me.

We were summarily dismissed by the critics. Clive Barnes [New York Times] referred to us as a bunch of dirty-foot hippies from Chicago. Now, that's on the negative side. On the positive side he said, "But if you want to smoke a joint and go to the theatre, you'll have a good time." Now here we are trying to pass legislation to make marijuana legal. In '73, if you had a dollar you could walk across "the Deuce" and buy anything you want, inanimate or animate.

It was a challenge and you know my third cardinal rule is "the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next. Keep climbing." I'd obviously gotten to the top of the Warp mountain because we came to the mountain and, for whatever the reasons were, we couldn't climb to the pinnacle of that particular mountain.

When the Organic Theatre Company made its collective decision — because we were a collective — to return to Chicago, I thought Oh no, I'm where I'm supposed to be. Didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of but I'm where I'm supposed to be. The great Charlo Crossley, who was doing Jesus Christ Superstar and living in Chelsea on W. 16th St. I think, said to me — and this was how many of us were able to stay in New York — "You can sleep on my couch for as long as it takes you to get on your feet. In turn, you wash the dishes when I can't or when I have to run out to work. Make sure the cat gets fed."

That was the spring of '73 and by the fall of '74, I was the Wizard.

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

In between, you did Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don't You Ever Forget It!

[laughs] Too much research!

I have to laugh because critics sometimes are too clever for their own good. That show didn't even make it to opening night.

I'm just thinking of the design there. One show [Warp] gets summarily dismissed. The other show doesn't even open! They shut us down in previews.

Rex Reed called Rachael Lily Rosenbloom an "insurmountable catastrophe" and a writer for the Herald-News said, "It was an appallingly bad show. Those responsible must have stayed up late nights thinking of ways to make it worse." As someone who was actually in the production, do you concur with those assessments or did critics not understand what [writer] Paul Jabara and his cohorts were trying to do?

I do not concur with the assessment, although I understand a critic — having mean streaks in them anyway— having to intellectually answer the question, "Why is this piece of art so confused?"

What's that adage? Too many chefs spoil the soup, or something like that. There were replications of positions of labor. Two choreographers, two directors, and all that sort of stuff. It wasn't a true collaboration. It was, "Your work is inadequate, do mine." And accomplished people — this is Robert Stigwood producing. Sometimes when the money flows fast, it becomes another one of those glittering objects that you want to grab for, and you forget content, you forget about substance, you forget about the actual process of the evolution from concept to execution. It's like rearing a child. You can't do it slapdash. You can't do it quickly. It's a lot of heartache ... and in 1973, nobody wanted heartache. Everybody wanted fun. When is the disco ball going to lower from the ceiling?

Rachael Lily Rosenbloom was the first and only show I've ever experienced where the audience booed at the curtain call. Booed! I guess that's when Robert Stigwood said, "Okay, we're not opening this baby!" [laughs]

All of that having been said, this is my first chorus role, and my only chorus role, but in the chorus of Rachael Lily Rosenbloom was André De Shields, Wayne Cilento, Michon Peacock, Tommy Walsh, Kelly Bishop, Jozella Reed, Joshie Armstead was there for a minute, Anthony White. That was the chorus! The first choreographer was Tony Stevens. One day, Tony Stevens comes up to me and he says, "André, you know you'll never be in the chorus again." We finished the rehearsal. I went home and I broke out in hives on my face. This was neurological. I was trying to figure out what did I do that was so wrong that I'll never be in the chorus again?

I was so unhappy. When I went back to rehearsal the next day, and I had a moment, I asked Tony if I could speak with him privately. We went off to a corner and I said, "Tony, why am I never going to be in the chorus again?" He realized that I was distressed. He said, "Oh no André, you misunderstood. I meant that you're doing so well in the show that the next show you do, you'll have a featured part!" [laughs]

As invincible as I thought I was, I hadn't learned that lesson, that "You're never going to be in the chorus again" meant "You're on your way up" but I learned it. I kept it in my tool kit, not because I knew I'd be doing The Wiz but because when the opportunity for the next rung on the ladder came, I wanted to be able to recognize it and then pull that tool out and say, I'm ready ... and it was The Wiz.

One of my most cherished New York memories was attending the 40th anniversary performance of The Wiz in Central Park. The way you made your entrance, for me, was like seeing a mythological character come to life right before my eyes. How did the Wiz evolve from words on a page to a flesh-and-blood character?

What I did with the Wiz, which very few people know because the only way you would know it is if I explained it to you, and the few people who would intuit it are in Chicago, was take all of that energy from Xander the Unconquerable, Ruler of the Sixth Dimension, that New York never experienced, and invested it in Mr. Wiz because it wasn't on anybody's menu.

The idea of the Wizard was inspired by the character from the Judy Garland film, a "wizened old guy" who was a charlatan selling snake oil, but when I got the gig they knew that wasn't going to work. Where were we headed? I knew. I knew the Wiz had to be superhuman.

I'm glad you asked me that question because someday somebody's going to write a dissertation about the evolution of that character, especially since Richard Pryor played that character in the film and Queen Latifah played that character in the television version — you're welcome! No, I don't mind making work for other celebrities. So therein lies a series of connections for someone who is cerebrally aroused about what this character means, but if you look at me in full makeup and costume, I look like one of the superheroes in films now, but no one could even envision that then.

The Wiz cast album was recorded at A&R Studios, Phil Ramone's studio. There are some major players on that album, between Phil Ramone engineering, Jerry Wexler producing, and Harold Wheeler orchestrating. How were you able to bring the Wiz to life in a recording studio, where the setting might be kind of cold?

It is cold and it's nine o'clock in the morning! Every show does that. "We're gonna do the cast album. Be in the studio at 9.00am on Monday, your day off!" Why? Who sings at 9.00am on a Monday? We know why — because the studio's affordable at 9.00am Everybody else wants to come in at midnight — Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, they know better than to try to sing at 9.00am.

We who are performing activists do not allow our imaginations to atrophy. That is what makes us different than any other professional. If you call yourself an artist it's because you have embraced your imagination and its power because if you cannot first imagine it, there's no way you can manifest it, so I took my imagination with me into the studio, which is cold, and it's cold because of the equipment. They don't love me in the studio, they don't love the artist in the studio. They love the equipment, but your imagination works whether it's at the equator or the North Pole, so I brought the elements, the production value of the show, to the microphone with me.

Everything is a coin. It's two-sided. There's the obverse, which is the face, and then there's the reverse, which is the tail. I also brought that coin with me, which is the privilege of being captured on vinyl and the responsibility to leave open the door that you created with this character. You don't close it behind you. You blaze a trail in the wilderness and then you leave breadcrumbs for Hansel and Gretel who are coming up behind you to find their way also. That's how I did it anyhow.

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

I have a vinyl surprise for you. This follows a previous conversation we had backstage at Hadestown. Why did this album [Four Seasons of Love by Donna Summer] become a staple on your record player?

[laughs] The Four Seasons of Love. Woo! During all of the years, not that there were many, but all of the time that I spent in The Wiz, Donna Summer was Queen of the Disco and at that time we were part of the chosen few. We could show up at Studio 54 and the doorman at the velvet stanchion would look over everyone and point to us from The Wiz to come in, that kind of thing.

"Spring Affair" is my favorite from this particular album, but when Donna Summer would come on in the disco, you knew it was approaching the time for the ceiling to open and the six-foot disco ball would come down, and you've saved a hit of cocaine for that purpose, so that the world, the universe, the cosmos would expand for you and you would dance yourself into another dimension and then realize Oh, this is Friday night. I have a two o'clock matinee and it's 4.00am. I got to go home and shower and come back and do the matinee and then the evening show and then go on to Paradise Garage on Saturday and then come back and do the Sunday matinee ... which is why you can't go into the studio at 9.00am on Monday to record the album! [laughs]

There was a 1977 calendar that came with Four Seasons of Love. December 1977, from what I understand, is when Ain't Misbehavin' went into pre-production at the Manhattan Theatre Club before it moved to Broadway.

I think you're being a little prescient because "pre-production" has a sense of Broadway and when we went to work at the Manhattan Theatre Club, we had no idea that this miracle moment was going to happen. The Manhattan Theatre Club was on the upper east side in what used to be a social home. The venue in which we worked was a cabaret that seated 64, so pre-production was ... "hit it"! [laughs]

How were you even cast in Ain't Misbehavin'?

I love telling a story like this because I've done more shows where I've never met the casting director than I have been cast by someone. These were telephone calls from Murray Horwitz, whose idea it was to do a musical based on the jazz genius, Fats Waller, and Richard Maltby who was the director of the piece and lyricist in some situations. I'm not so sure that Nancy Piccione, who casts for the Manhattan Theatre Club, was there at the time, but I do remember the young man who was one of the associate artists there was making phone calls too. His name isn't coming back to me right now, but he went on to have a career of his own as a director. At any rate, it was people calling people on the phone saying "We've got this idea. Would you come up to the Manhattan Theatre Club and let us have a look?"

Now when I got the call, and I walked into the room, Nell Carter, Ken Page, Armelia McQueen, and — this will be a surprise to a lot of people — Irene Cara, were the other four. They have a stack of compositions from the discography of Fats Waller and they would go through the stack and say, "Try this, sing this. Oh, Nell and André sing this. Irene and Ken, sing this." Then we would go away and obviously I was the lucky number five and we went to work.

What they were discovering, in retrospect, was finding out if this was the right odd number of personalities who could always offer the conflict that was going to move the bare storyline along with the barest of interstitial material, which is why it won the Tony for "Best Musical" and not "Best Revue" because that connective tissue convinced you that there was a book. Those are the kinds of people that they needed who could fill in the gaps. I won't even talk about myself, Nell Carter can fill in any gap you got, okay? Ken Page, Irene Cara, who went on to do Fame (1980), Armelia McQueen ... these are huge larger-than-life talented people. I felt blessed that I was chosen to be part of that aggregate of people, also knowing "Wait till you see what I can do. I got something for ya." [laughs]

You've got those snake hips! ["The Viper's Drag"]

[laughs] Right, right, right! My mother used to dance snake hips around the house so when Arthur Faria the choreographer said to me on the day we were doing "The Viper's Drag"/"Reefer Song", "Now I'm going to teach you the snake hips," I said, "Wait a minute. You can teach me the Balinese hand movement but I got the snake hips!"

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

Not every Broadway show gets a chance to be showcased on network television. How was Ain't Misbehavin' picked up to be filmed and broadcast on NBC?

I don't know the inside workings of this but I do know that the artistic team were insistent about this being the best effort to create live theatre on television and part of that effort was realized when we went to NBC and we worked on the Johnny Carson soundstage, which was huge. It was like an airplane hanger. They decided, "The cabaret that you are performing in" — which is not literally realized in the Broadway production — "we're gonna build on this set." That's when we knew, we can bring you the true, authentic stuff. We're going to bring you archetypes.

The next element that made me sure that this was going to work is when we got to "The Viper's Drag". If you're looking at the stage, "The Viper's Drag" starts stage right and ends sinuously stage left. So to make it live you can't just put a camera on a tripod because then it looks wooden and then you are aware that there's a screen separating you from the action. I wish I could meet this man again, because he was so ready. He was down for the gig. They strapped the camera to his shoulder — the first time I'd ever seen this — and he followed me as I danced across the stage. He moved with the camera on his shoulder until the number was finished ... and it's a nine-minute number. That's why it looks live. That's why it looks real because nothing is static, nothing is still. There's no screen and of course that moment when the viper offers the joint, there's an audience member to take it and they're responding and they're screaming and yelling. That's the way to do it — don't pretend. Make it as live as possible. Bring as much heat to the experience as possible because the beauty of live theatre is that you can affect the temperature of the room.

Even just watching it on a television screen, you turned the temperature up to sizzling-plus!

We Americans live in Fahrenheit but I try to work in Centigrade on that number! It was like, Okay y'all, this is climate change! And it's 1982! [laughs]

Were you able to attend the Emmy Awards to receive your award in person?

Yes. I don't know how they make the choices but they give some Emmy Awards before the show is televised. Nell and I were part of that. I was working in Chicago at the time and they gave me time off to go out and receive my Emmy.

Having achieved so much in your career, what's been one of the greatest challenges you've overcome?

There are daily challenges, but because of the coronavirus, because we are experiencing this moratorium of art right now, the challenge that has a lasting residue, the challenge that lingers in the atmosphere, if you will, is the storytelling sensibility that I brought to Hermes in Hadestown.

Fifty-one years in this industry, and more often than not, and certainly when I arrived in New York and Warp was finished and Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don't You Ever Forget It! was finished and I was in the process of going before casting directors, I got asked two questions. Although I came to New York as an actor, the questions they asked me were "Can you dance? Can you sing?" Now my interior response was, "Am I Black? Of course I can dance and sing! No, I didn't study at Alvin Ailey or Julliard but I grew up in the streets of Baltimore so I can throw down."

What I now understand is I was bringing something totally idiosyncratic to the palette, to what they like to call the tabula rasa. They had never seen this on the blank slate before and when I realized that that was my edge, I kept honing it. I kept sharpening it, which is why in three shows — The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin' and Play On! (my first Tony nomination) — when I was no longer associated with the show, dancers were hired in my role. No, no, no. I'm not dancing, I'm acting as if I'm a dancer, so you must hire an actor who can do that. Not a dancer who can't act his way across the street. I'm not talking about any specific person. I'm just talking about the discipline because I'm not a dancer. I know I shouldn't say that but I didn't break my bank account or my bones learning how to développé or tour jeté or rond de jambe. I didn't do that. I did the boogaloo, I did the slop, I did the stroll, but they had trained that out of everybody else.

On that note, how would you describe the dynamic between Geoffrey Holder directing The Wiz and George Faison choreographing The Wiz? They are two powerhouses. When those powerhouses came together, was there harmony?

Well, if one were to write the story, it would have to be called "Clash of the Titans", definitely, but take that metaphor to the next level — when stars collide, you get this explosion of color and beauty and atmosphere. That's what happened with George Faison, who is a galaxy unto himself, and Geoffrey Holder, who is a cosmos unto himself, so when they collaborate, when they collide, what we get is a new constellation.

What drives your creativity?

I'm old school, and I don't say that just to appear hip. I'm old school because I was brought up as a "race man", which means wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever you say, however you act, remember you are representing the race, because the entire race is going to be judged by what you do, by what you say, by how you handle yourself in this particular situation.

I'm growing up in the '50s. Right or wrong, we believed that white was not only "might" but white was "right". Now, I'm in Baltimore. I'm already dreaming that I'm going to end up at the center of the universe — New York, the city so nice they have to name it twice. What's the first tool I'm going to need? I'm going to learn the language of my oppressor, not only so that I can understand what's being said to me, but so that I can make myself clear when expressing myself. If my oppressor speaks a word with six syllables, I'm going to respond with a word that's seven syllables, okay?

Now, that's gotten me into a lot of tight situations but that's okay because if you're a Black man and you've achieved celebrity, you've had to have been arrogant somewhere sometime in your life, otherwise you would have been beaten down because the white nationalist, if you will, the powers-that-be, are always trying to kill the African in you. Sorry, you can't do that. You can't do that. [long pause]

It's a matter of surviving, thriving, and ultimately prevailing. Then, it's a matter of being a source of pride for your race, for your family, for your community. The first thing I said in my Tony acceptance speech was "Baltimore, are you in the house? Because I'm making good on my promise that someday I would be someone that you would be proud to call a native son."

Becoming a free man, becoming a free individual, becoming liberated, is a process. It's evolution. I wrote an article for the current issue of the SDC Journal. It's entitled "The Last Blood Sacrifice". It's my perspective on the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The effort to dismiss us, the effort to disappear us, the effort to hold us in disdain, the effort to make us believe — like we used to — that we are the scum of the earth and that we must obey the white oppressor in exchange for reward once we die and go to heaven is now seen by most people of color as what it is — a political tool, a delusion, to keep us in our place. To make us think we're no more than three-quarters of an actual person.

That keeps me going, because every day I wake up, I have to decide, and this is prior to the coronavirus, what mask I'm going to wear in order to get through the next 24 hours, so that when I go into Barney's I don't have someone following me looking to see if I'm shoplifting a watch or something. Or if I go into a grocery store and someone says, "Can I help you?" "Yes here's my list. Could you please gather these items and bring them to the till?" What do you mean "can you help me?" I'm shopping, okay?

André De Shields with Christian John Wikane / Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

I have one last question for you. You addressed this earlier on when we were talking about Motown but I'd be curious to know, how has music, specifically, shaped your life?

You ask the deepest questions, but that's okay because I got the deepest answers ... or responses, anyway. The great minds, the great explorers of humanity agree that up to this point, all the evidence indicates that humanity has its beginning, its source, its commencement in that geographical area that we now know as the continent of Africa, and we trace our common humanity to this four-foot fossil that's called Lucy and out of Lucy evolved what we now know as Homo sapiens, homoerectus. Out of Africa we walked north south east and west, and then environment took over and specialized us depending upon if we were living in the cold or the heat or the sun or the dark.

We've lost hold of that holy community, of that common ground. It is our purpose to re-establish the harmony of humanity. We've forgotten it, but we can re-learn it. There are only four sources of harmony. One is air, one is water, one is earth, and one is fire. Those are the things that exist when we are evicted from our mother's womb into this dimension, onto this spaceship called planet Earth and these elements survive us when we return to ash, as we say. In these four elements is harmony, and the harmony is vibrational. Each of these elements moves, each of these elements has a rhythm, each of these elements has a voice. Each of these elements has music as part of its essence and that's where we discover everything we invent.

This essence lives in us but if we cannot quiet the noise of the contemporary lives that we have built for ourselves, these four essences are not going to scream at us. They're not going to raise their voices, or raise their rhythms, or raise their music, etc. They're going to wait until we decide, "Ah! Let me focus. I need to take the garbage out so I can listen and learn." That's what this moment is — the universe speaking to us, using Mother Nature as its megaphone saying, "Stop! In the name of love. Before you break my heart. Think it over." The message is in the music.

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