De Shields first performed Mine Eyes last February, channeling Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama for a special one-night-only performance, for the Actors Equity Association EEO’s observance of Black History Month. The event took place at 1199, the home for SEIU Service Employees International Union, which is also known as the Martin Luther King Labor Center in New York.
The Working Theater, whose mission is to produce theater with working class themes for working class people at affordable prices, is celebrating their 25th anniversary and Black History Month, with a two week run of Mine Eyes, from Thursday, February 4 through Sunday, February 14 at the The Abingdon Theatre, 312 W. 36 St. in New York. Created and performed by De Shields, Mine Eyes is helmed by Alfred Preisser.
New York theatre audiences have seen him in productions as varied as Cato at The Flea, Haarlem Nocturne at Broadway’s now defunct Latin Quarter, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor at the Melting Pot Theatre, Let Me Sing at The George Street Playhouse and Lonnie Carter’s The Gulliver Trilogy at La MaMa e.t.c. Regional audiences have witnessed him as Henry Drummond in Inherit The Wind, Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came To Dinner, Scott Joplin in Tin Pan Alley Rag, Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, Jacob Strand in Ibsen’s Ghosts (starring Jane Alexander), and the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland on January 12, 1946, the award-winning actor graduated from Baltimore City College high school, received his BA degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and earned a master’s degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. Choreographer, composer, director, lyricist and educator are among the hats this single alpha male dons in his multi-hyphenate existence; Mine Eyes marks his debut as a playwright.
On the first day of the new decade, De Shields welcomed me into his New York apartment, and over the course of several hours, we talked about his juggling act in 2009, the genesis of Mine Eyes, his collaborations with director Alfred Preisser, and his transition from performer to writer.
“For the past 10 years, I celebrate my birthday having graduated to a new project and a different level of my career. I like that very much. Every year is an amazing year for me. In terms of surrendering to a greater power, 2009 was great testimony to that. The opportunities and the blessings that came my way were all served for me by the universe. I flowed from one project into the next, back to back, overlapping – the creative process was one river journey,” said De Shields.
The performance was 50 minutes, attended by a standing room only crowd of more than 300 people, who were hungry for the kind of common ground that the show engendered. They were screaming before the performance started, screamed through the performance, and they screamed afterwards. People cried tears of Joy. I’m not saying I was the source. I was the tool. I was the conduit. It was all of those historical firsts that made it such a joyous, hopeful occasion of unmitigated celebration.
Impressionism and ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE
After Mine Eyes, he returned to the Broadway stage in the world premiere of Michael Jacobs’ Impressionism, co-starring with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen. Impressionism closed in mid-May, and without missing a beat, dove into rehearsals for the Off-Broadway production of ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE, at The Clurman in New York, playing a con artist preacher who is the ultimate entertainer. Co-written by Preisser and Randy Weiner especially for him, the original musical, loosely based on Moliere’s Tartuffe and set within a fabulously theatrical Harlem Renaissance-era “church, “ explored the outrageously creative criminal mind of Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe through a series of songs, dances, sermons and feats of divine inspiration.
At the end of September, he headed down to The Alliance in Atlanta, to rehearse David Mamet’s A Life in The Theatre, and to start the process with his dramaturg for his second solo performance, informed by his 40 years as a performing artist and his personal life from ‘growing up in the hood in Baltimore to taking a bite out of the Big Apple’. which has a working title of The Goatman Project. The show closed on November 15, and the next day he flew back to New York and headed for the AUDLECO award ceremony at Aaron David Hall, where he was awarded his sixth AUDELCO, for his work in The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE, for Outstanding Performance in a Musical/Male.
How has theatre become a way to life for you?
One of the stories I tell is as a young man, I dreamed of theater as a way of life. It’s the dream of nearly everyone who chooses this profession. The question is what do you do once that dream comes true. By the time I’d done Ain’t Misbehavin’, which was preceded by The Wiz, my dream had come true. Theater was a way of Life. The evidence of it was when I came back from Paris. I did Ain’t Misbehavin’ there. I did the show here on Broadway, six months in London, six months on the West Coast, six months in Paris. That’s the kind of tour you want to do. So when I came back from Paris, I get offered Ain’t Misbehavin’ in Alaska. This is too sweet. Then, Cape Cod. All of this is gorgeous because I’ve never been to any of these places. Once back, I get offered Houston. Then I’m thinking, oh, this is the dream come true. I can do Ain’t Misbehavin’ for the rest of my life which is a decision to be considered. Or I can change the preposition and flip the script. So theater is no longer a way of life. Theater has become a way to life. That’s the revelation. That’s what opens the door to six collaborations at The Classical Theatre of Harlem, The Full Monty. Everything that happened after Ain’t Misbehavin’.
You’ve worked with director Alfred Preisser on six different projects and chose him to direct Mine Eyes. What do you hope that he’s going to bring to the table based on the other five projects that you’ve worked on with him? What is the dynamic, the chemistry and the process that you share?
The dynamic is this. Again, I’m going to use the term authentic. Authentic theater is a happening. Authentic theater happens in the present tense. All the time and only. It doesn’t mean that you cannot do a play that was written years ago. It doesn’t mean that you cannot do a revival. It doesn’t mean that you cannot do a reading. It doesn’t mean anything except that when you are in the creative process, it must be in the present tense. You, the performer must be experiencing for the first time and the audience must be witnessing for the first time so the entire happening is experiential. Experiential is a curious word. Everyone thinks they know what it means. But if you ask someone, what does it mean; they’ll go in the direction of experimental. That isn’t what I’m saying here. I’m not talking about experimental theater. experiential theater is, to be repetitive, happens in the moment, in the present tense. It causes the audience to be conscious only of the present tense moment. And demands that you entertain it with your five senses at the very least. More if you are enlightened enough to be aware that there are more than five senses.
Was it like that with Dream on Monkey Mountain?
That’s exactly how it was. Even the way I got to know him, that’s the way it was. I went to the Classical Theatre of Harlem when they were situated in the Harlem School of the Arts. I’d come back from doing my seven months of doing The Full Monty on the West End in London, and when I returned, my colleague Arthur French had directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for CTH, and one of my spirit children, Tamela Aldridge, was in the role of Ma Rainey. So for two reasons I wanted to see this production. I’m sitting in the audience. The connection between the two of us was made at Ma Rainey’s. When Alfred came to me, he referred to me as Mr. De Shields and said I’m so glad you’ve come to see our work.” I said, “Well I’m here because of Arthur and Tamela.”
During intermission, he came back to me and said, “Would you ever consider working here?” Now I have a boilerplate response to questions because I never want to offend people but I’ve learned not to commit to an experience when I’m feeling generous. And I was feeling generous there because I was with friends.
I took the script home, read it and was seduced by it. I remembered it being a piece of significant literature, forget play, literature. When I re-read it I knew that this was one of those opportunities that the universe had prepared for me. Forget my plans, this is something that the universe had said, “You’re finished with The Full Monty, you need something that’s going to graduate you, here it is.” It was an important experience for me. And it was a significant production. Through the entire collaboration, Alfred would ask things of me that I know he might have asked of other actors, but he wasn’t being engaged. He wasn’t getting an affirmative response.
In very simple terms with Alfred, and this is the way I do my best work, and this is what the term process mean, it’s unending, simply because you’ve gotten to opening night does not mean that you stop creating. Alfred does not use the term, which is very popular in the theater-commercial and experimental-freeze. The show is open-it’s now frozen. I don’t think so. Certainly in university theater where I also work, after the show opens, your creative team is gone. They’re off on their next project. This was part of the distraction of Impressionism, what destroyed Impressionism. Director Jack O’Brien and the producer realized in the second week of previews, before we were to open, much of the sensibilities that the writer had invested in the play had not been realized and the play would be enormously better if we would take some time and adjust things before we got to the point where we said, it’s frozen. Well it wasn’t frozen, it was still fluid. It was begging for attention. And as we learned from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman-attention must be paid. From my perspective, the producer wisely postponed the opening so that the director and the playwright could finally realize the elements that were calling out to us. Hey you forgot us. It wasn’t that we weren’t ready to open. However, we were going to open with a play that had not been fully realized. That is a mistake.
Fully realized, as long as the creative process existed. In an unending process, you are fully realizing it. When you ask me questions about working with Alfred, I speak in the present tense. Cause it didn’t happen yesterday and it isn’t going to happen tomorrow. It’s going to happen now. In terms of process, I take one of my lessons from Honoré de Balzac, who says “Constant Toil is the Law of Life as well as Art.” And when you choose a profession like this, your art is your life and your life is your art. Therefore you must be ready to commit to constant toil. That is present tense. That is process.
Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance is a work-in-progress for you. How has the piece evolved?
The February 9th iteration of Mine Eyes was so informed by Barack Obama’s election, a phenomenon that was really the responsibility of working class people. That grass roots phenomenon of taking a man of the people and elevating him to a level where his skill and candidacy could not be denied ultimately won the election. So as this piece continues and I’m sure that it has a future, it will be informed by what happens in the body politic from a working class point of view.
As Mine Eyes continues to change we will continue to experiment with the ideas of who are the prophets now, who have this miraculous insight into America’s political future. The new title I am considering is I Dream America: From Douglass to Deliverance.
How did this transition from performer to writer come about?
Another lovely perk to Mine Eyes being my first solo performance is we performing artists; we’re not the most secure people in the world. I mean that in literal terms, I’m not being Freudian right now. We’re seasonal employees and our lives are best described by feast or famine. One day you are a prince, the next day you are a pauper. What’s on our minds and in our hearts all the time is how well we transition, not only from one year to the next, one gig to the next, but how will be transition in our lives from one epoch to the next, from one generation to the next.
This question was answered for De Shields on November 10, 2008, when he received a call from Jody Feldman, artistic associate of Susan Booth, the artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, who scheduled a dinner meeting for the two of them. Booth sought out De Shields after discovering him on the internet. During the dinner she said she was familiar with his work, but had discovered him in other media, a commencement address that he had delivered at the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater, for the graduating class of 2007, which is streaming on their website.
“She thought, that’s an actor who must have a story to tell. The point I’m getting at is this transition that includes my acting but also takes me from only an actor to a playwright happened that auspicious night when I had dinner with Susan Booth. Since the, I have been commissioned, contract has been signed, to write a solo performance that would be informed by my 40 years as a performing artist and my personal life from growing up in the hood in Baltimore to taking a bite out of the Big Apple,” said De Shields.
Susan Booth said, “Let’s not make the mistake of bringing you to Atlanta and having you tear your hair out when you have to come up with a formula of writing so many hours a day. Let’s get you working on a project that will keep you busy during those times when you might experience writer’s block. The project will serve as an inspiration for the times when you are working.”
It worked perfectly. The project turned out to be A Life in the Theatre. Could it be a more perfect project? I’m not talking about the quality or the content of the play, but the concept of the play. Here I am writing a solo piece about my life in the theater, and here I am performing in a piece by David Mamet called A Life in the Theatre. Symbiotic. Now it’s a matter of meeting deadlines and perhaps in a year, this time in 2011, we’ll know the results. The writing has begun. The week before we started rehearsing, I spent with the dramaturg and an intern who videotaped all the sessions of me and the dramaturg. I have a stack of DVDs that I can put in the player when I want to know what I said. The process right now isn’t trying to do something linear, or even trying to create an emotional arc or trajectory. It’s to get stories down.
For De Shields, a self cultivated actor who has achieved a life in the theater and has transitioned to a theater in his life, the sky’s the limit. Improvisation is his new motto as he embarks on his 41st year in the theater. In addition to Mine Eyes and The Goatman Project, he is working on a coffee table book replete with photographs, selected interviews and essays. In June, he will co-star in the American premiere of Karen Malpede’s new drama, Prophecy alongside Kathleen Chalfant and George Bartenieff at Manhattan’s East Fourth Street Theater in New York.
Come celebrate Black History Month with De Shields and The Working Theater at Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance. Performances run from Thursday, February 4 through Sunday, February 14 at The Abingdon Theatre, 312 West 36 St. in New York. The performance schedule for Mine Eyes is Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm with matinees on Wednesday, February 10th at 2pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. All tickets are $25 and can be ordered online at www.smarttix.com or by calling (212) 868-4444. For special group discounts call (212) 244-3300. www.theworkingtheater.org.
Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, June Havoc Theatre
312 W. 36th Street (btwn 8th & 9th Aves)
Awards and Nominations
2009 National Black Theatre Festival Living Legend Award
2009 AUDELCO for Outstanding Performance in a Musical/Male/ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE–The Classical Theatre of Harlem
2007 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts (University of Wisconsin–Madison)
2007 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence
2004 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Prymate, nominee)
2004 AUDELCO for Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actor in a Play/Dream on Monkey Mountain–The Classical Theatre of Harlem
2001 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (The Full Monty, nominee)
2001 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical (The Full Monty, nominee)
2001 Outer Critics Circle Award (The Full Monty, winner)
1997 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Play On!, nominee)
1997 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical (Play On!, nominee)
1992 AUDELCO Recognition Award/Excellence in Black Theatre/Haarlem Nocturne–La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
1991 AUDELCO Recognition Award/Excellence in Black Theatre/Saint Tous –La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
1984 The 12th Annual AUDELCO Recognition Award/Outstanding Direction of a Musical/Blackberries–Amas Repertory Theatre
1984 The 12th Annual AUDELCO Recognition Award/Outstanding Choreography of a Musical/Blackberries–Amas Repertory Theatre
1978 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Ain’t Misbehavin‘, nominee)
He won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Achievement for his performance in the 1982 NBC broadcast of Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Andre De Shields and Kathleen Chalfant to Headline Cast of Karen Malpede’s New Drama Prophecy
André De Shields in Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe among broadwayworld.com’s 2009’s Ten Memorable Theater Moments
André De Shields Celebrates Black History Month Starring in The Working Theater’s Production of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory at The Abingdon in February 2010
Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, MTC’s Ruined are Top Winners at 2009 Audelcos
Director Alfred Preisser Sets His Sights on a New World Stage
Playbill.com De Shields, Kind, Wehle and Finley Will Explore Women’s Suffrage at Cooper Union
Theatermania.com André De Shields’ Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory to Play NYC February 4-14
ITTY BITTY BITS: André de Shields’ preps ‘Glory’
A Dressing Room of One’s Own
Atlantaintownpaper.com: Theatre Review: A Life in the Theatre
Championnewspaper.com: Theatre Review: A Life in the Theatre
sovo.com: Platonic Love, Erotic Love, Heroic Love
Audelco 2009 “The Viv” Nominees for the 2008-2009 Theatre Season
Classical Theatre of Harlem Scores 12 AUDELCO Nods for Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe and The Three Sisters
De Shields and Shafir Share a Life in the Theatre at the Alliance
André De Shields’ Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory to Play NYC in February
A LIFE IN THE THEATRE Starring André De Shields Opens at Alliance Theatre, 10/28
André de Shields’ Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory Will Return to NYC in 2010
Boston.com: André De Shields is a One Man History Lesson
mvtimes.com: Dance: André De Shields in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory at the Yard
André De Shields stars in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance at The YARD
The Bacchae Opening Night Photos: André De Shields, Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie
talkinbroadway.com: Interview: Andre De Shields: The Bacchae
ourtownny.com: A Soul for Greek Drama
André De Shields receives Living Legend Award at the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival
Photo Call: Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe Opening Night Party Photos
Playbill.com: Leading Men Swenson and De Shields
Photo Call: Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe
Playbill.com: Photo Call: De Shields and Lange Star in Off Broadway’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe
André De Shields Stars in Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe
Impressionism Ends Broadway Run
André De Shields in Impressionism
NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Allow Actor-philosopher André De Shields to blow your mind.
NEW YORK MAGAZINE The Impressionist: André De Shields
André De Shields in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory from Douglass to Deliverance
Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe Reviews
NY Times Weekend Listing
Show Business Weekly
New York Times