Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Achieving the American Dream, Professional Charmer André De Shields Sees Theater is a Way To Life

André De Shields © Lia Chang

André De Shields © Lia Chang

It’s frigid outside on this Sunday afternoon in January, but the temperature in the sixth floor rehearsal room of The Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex in New York is rising. The source of the heat is André De Shields, barefoot and clad in red sweatpants and shackles, who is rehearsing the choreography for the slave, one of the five characters he embodies in his solo work-in-progress, Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance.

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.

André De Shields in his New York apartment © Lia Chang

In a career that has spanned four decades, this professional charmer is best known for his electrifying performances in the original Broadway productions of The Wiz in 1975 (title role), Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978 (Drama Desk nomination), Play On! in 1997 (Tony nomination) and The Full Monty in 2000, for which he received Tony, Drama Desk and Astaire Award nominations, in addition to both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League Awards. He created the role of Graham in the world premiere of Mark Medoff’s Prymate at Florida State University, and revisited that role in the Broadway production at the Longacre Theatre (Drama Desk nomination). He is the recipient of the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award, the 2007 Village Voice OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance and the 2009 AUDELCO Award for Outstanding Performance in a Musical/Male. He won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Achievement for his performance in the 1982 NBC broadcast of Ain’t Misbehavin’. At the Classical Theatre of Harlem, he has been seen as Makak in Derek Walcott’s Dream On Monkey Mountain, in the title roles of Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, CALIGULA and King Lear.
Andre De Shields as Cato. © Lia Chang

Andre De Shields as Cato. © Lia Chang

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.

André De Shields in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance. © Lia Chang

André De Shields in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance. © Lia Chang

What was your inspiration for Mine Eyes?
The beginning of 2009 was marked by a convergence of a bouquet of historical precedences. As a member of Actors Equity Association EOO Committee who oversees the annual observance of Black History Month, I submitted to them this idea to celebrate Black Heritage Month that embraces all these historical firsts. They being the November before in 2008, the first president elect of color, Barack Obama had delivered a stunning acceptance speech in Grant Park in Chicago, so that’s how 2008 ended. 2009 began with the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We know what a historical icon he is. He was martyred for his architecture of the civil rights movement and his leadership. February 2009, we were marking the bicentennial of one our great emancipators, Abraham Lincoln. The second great emancipator is Frederick Douglass whose birthday also falls in February. And February has traditionally been Black History Month. All of those elements coming together in a matter of months that this was a watershed in terms of American History, certainly in terms of African American History.

Barack Obama, very often in his public speaking refers to Frederick Douglass as an inspiration. Barack Obama is compared with Frederick Douglass by third party journalists. The New York Times did a hugh article on ‘how is Barack Obama like Frederick Douglass’. As I said before, Frederick Douglass is one of our great emancipators. Everybody knows the name, but not many understand that Frederick Douglass had three historical meetings with Abraham Lincoln. Out of these three meetings came three of the most important changes in American History. One was the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Two-the resolution of the Civil War. Three-the freeing of the slaves.

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.

Jeremy Irons and André De Shields after the performance of Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory:  From Douglass to Deliverance in New York on February 9, 2009. © Lia Chang

Jeremy Irons and André De Shields after the performance of Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance in New York on February 9, 2009. © Lia Chang

Now, a year later, the blush is off that rose. There’s information that needs to inform Mine Eyes that is much different than a year ago. I’m thinking the title needs to change. In terms of performing the piece, the focus was on Frederick Douglass. We’re not taking the focus off of Frederick Douglass. Remember the full title is Mine Eye Have Seen The Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance. As we are rediscovering the piece for the two weeks that it’s going to run in February, the focus is shifting to deliverance. Now we have a year of retrospection to look back and see if indeed all of those elements have delivered on their implicit promise. There’s an aura of prophecy in the piece now. What the Obama campaign was promising in Nov of 2008, was it delivered by November of 2009? What Frederick Douglass was dreaming for American in the 19th century, did it happen in the 20th century? And now that we’re in the 21st century, is there more of it to be revealed? Prophecy and delivery go hand in hand.

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.

AUDELCO nominee André De Shields (center) flanked by Tyrone Davis, Charletta Rozzell and Reji Woods in the Classical Theatre of Harlem's ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE at The Clurman in July, 2009. © Lia Chang

AUDELCO nominee André De Shields (center) flanked by Tyrone Davis, Charletta Rozzell and Reji Woods in the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe at The Clurman in July, 2009. © Lia Chang

What I’ll say about ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE. It’s the final collaboration between Alfred Preisser and myself with him as artistic director of The Classical Theatre of Harlem. Tartuffe was actually the punctuation, the end of an era. It was also a test of mettle. It was a huge investment of energy, and except for plays like King Lear and Dream on Monkey Mountain in which my input was only as an actor, the other plays were a personal investment. Not only of my energy, not only of my sweat, but of my creative juices. People, who see the work that Alfred and I do, know there’s no one who can do the work but André De Shields ’cause this is a slice of his black blood. ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE was a conflation of so many of my heroes-James Brown, Sweet Daddy Grace, Father Divine, and Rev. Ike. And of course, in all of my work, in my 40 year career, I am inspired by my 10 siblings and my parents, who are the original dreamers. My mother and my father. I am the embodiment of their deferred dreams. ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE happened at a time during this transition from performer to writer, it is also significant. That show had a lot of punctuation for me both professionally and personally. I will never hang up my dancing shoes in the sense that I’m retiring because that’s part of my motor, my mother wanted to dance, and my father wanted to sing. And they never did. So I dance to keep the dream alive and to keep my mother alive, and I sing to keep my father alive. So no matter how else I might expand my craft, I will not stop dancing. I will not stop singing.
André De Shields, Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie. © Lia Chang

André De Shields, Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie at the Delacorte Theatre, for the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park opening night of The Bacchae on 8/24/09. © Lia Chang

In August, he made his New York Shakespeare Festival debut as Teiresias, in the Public Theater’s production of Euripides’ The Bacchae at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre, and flew on his day off to The National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC to received a Living Legend Award. Once The Bacchae closed, he was on his way to The Yard in Chilmark, an arts colony on Martha’s Vineyard, where he had been invited to continue developing Mine Eyes by Wendy Tauscher, the artistic director of The Yard.

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’.

André De Shields © Lia Chang

André De Shields on the set of The Public's Shakespeare in the Park production of The Bacchae on 8/24/09 in New York. © Lia Chang

What are the challenges of performing solo?
Mine Eyes is my very first solo performance. It’s daunting. It’s frightening in an optimistic way. It challenges me and it’s testing my mettle. It’s liberating parts of me. I had not actively entertained performing onstage alone because I’m alone in my life. I go to the stage for the community of other people. I also have always held that authentic theater begins with at least two individuals, so that we can reflect each other’s light. How does one do that if one is doing a solo performance? That’s what’s daunting about this project. What’s happening is that in the solo performance, I’m the only actor onstage, but I’m not the only persona onstage. So as I inhabit different characters, I don’t discard the light of any one of the characters. I refract it by carrying it into the next character. The light grows. I hope it will bear out in the performance.

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.

Ted Lange, Alfred Preisser and André De Shields at the opening night party of the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe at The Clurman in New York. © Lia Chang

Ted Lange, Alfred Preisser and André De Shields at the opening night party of the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe at The Clurman in New York. © Lia Chang

The dynamic of the relationship between Alfred and myself is experiential theater. Which means get out of your head and get into your gut. It has to be a visceral experience. It has to grab you and hold on to you, not let go of you even after the prescribed event is done. When we did the first performance of Mine Eyes on February 9th, people would not leave the venue because they wanted to be in the light. Bask in the glory that their eyes had seen. Some people wanted to ask questions. Some people wanted to be held. Some people wanted to hold me as an expression of thank you and appreciation. Many people, parents had brought their children. Many people just wanted me to meet their children. And that’s what Alfred and I do together every time. This is not an exaggeration. From our first collaboration which was Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. Our second collaboration which was CALIGULA. Our third collaboration which was King Lear. Our fourth collaboration which was Black Nativity. Our fifth collaboration was ARCHBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE. And our sixth is Mine Eyes. People will not leave the theater.

André De Shields in rehearsal at The Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex with costume designer Katja Andreiev, stage manager Robert Michael Johnson and director Alfred Preisser. © Lia Chang

The chemistry we share. And I say this affectionately. The chemistry between Alfred and me is belligerent. It’s bellicose. It’s combative. If it were not the performing arts, it would be a Friday night smackdown. It is probably from his wrestling background and from my attitude towards my work which is, “I’m the best there is.” You’ll have to take me down to get me to compromise. Alfred will go toe to toe with you. And so will I. But what that does is, is the same situation of applying a rock to flint, two steely unforgiving objects, but they connect, you get fire. You get the flame. You get pyrotechnics. You get fireworks. You get something that opens people’s eyes that mesmerizes people. You want to get closer to it, knowing that you could get burned. They want to get as close as they can.

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.

André De Shields and Nobel Laureate playwright Derek Walcott. De Shields starred in the Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain. © Lia Chang

I said, “If you have a project that you think would benefit from my participation, I’d be glad to consider it.” That’s definitely enough middle of the road that the person can go away feeling, “I wasn’t rejected.” Or go away feeling,”that’s an opening, maybe I should come back.” Well, obviously Alfred saw it as an opening because at the end the show, there he was with the project under his arm saying, “I would like you to consider Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain.” I told him I had read it and had even met Derek Walcott. I knew that Bill T. Jones had directed a production at The Guthrie. I knew then this guy is ready. He is on. That’s what I meant. In another situation, it would have been a Friday night smack down because I jabbed, he ducked. No one’s walked away from this yet. Both of us are still standing. It’s round 3 now.

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.

Six time Audelco award winner André De Shields (Outstanding Performance in Musical, Male) with presenter Natalie Clark at the 37th Annual Audelco Awards at Aaron Davis Hall in New York on Monday, November 16. © Tanja Hayes

Six time Audelco award winner André De Shields (Outstanding Performance in Musical, Male) with presenter Natalie Clark at the 37th Annual Audelco Awards at Aaron Davis Hall in New York on Monday, November 16. © Tanja Hayes

The central figure is Makak, who during the revelation of the play, is in prison. He is put in prison at a point when the play is scheduled to have an intermission, which makes theatrical sense. The central character is put in prison, intermission, cliff hanger. What’s going to happen to him? Alfred says to me, “now Andre, you understand that Makak is in prison. And this is intermission. There’s no intermission in prison.” And I knew exactly what he was asking. He wanted me to stay onstage in character through the intermission. I said, “I can do that.” And I did. The audience could not figure out what was going on. It was intermission, so they got up to leave. But I was still on stage, in character, in prison. So they sat back down. So you had to make your decision. Are you going to the bathroom? Are you going to get a box of M and M’s or are you going to sit here with the guy who is in prison and see what’s going on. Well of course most of the people sat there. And after the intermission was over for them there never was one because there never was one for the character. He was in jail. You don’t get out of jail for 15 minutes to go get a coke or milk duds. Or whatever. So that’s an illustration of experiential–happening in the moment, because if you go, if you take your intermission, you have missed a 15 minute moment which is , in the theater, huge. You’d have to come back and ask somebody-what happened while I was gone. No one’s going to sit there and tell you because the rest of play is about to unfold. And I knew then, this guy and I, we could do some stuff together.
André De Shields © Lia Chang

André De Shields in rehearsal at The Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex in New York. © Lia Chang

Would you say he’s unlike any director you’ve ever worked with?
Alfred is unlike most of the directors that I’ve worked with. He’s very much like Stuart Gordon, who founded The Organic Theater Company in Chicago, where I cut my teeth. Where I honed myself as an actor. I was born a performer when I was evicted from my mother’s womb. I became an actor with Stuart Gordon, who was also an undergraduate with me at the University of Wisconsin, This is where we discovered each other and did some marvelous work. As a matter of fact, Alfred Preisser and Stuart Gordon stand together in my career. If you put the two of them together, I can say, I’ve never worked with any other director like the two of them. And between Stuart Gordon and Alfred Preisser, and I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I experience a lot of theater, between the work I’ve done with Stuart Gordon and the work I’ve done with Alfred Preisser, I have not seen anything new. I’ve seen interesting stuff, good stuff, great stuff, excellent stuff, but I haven’t seen anything that I’ve not done with either of the two of those directors.

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.

 André De Shields as Frederick Douglass © Lia Chang

André De Shields as Frederick Douglass © Lia Chang

From Douglass to Deliverance. Now that we know that Douglass is the starting point, having been the epitome of the working class American, literally. The American ideal is the individual who pulls himself by his own bootstraps. Here’s a man who had no boots and achieved that, and became an historical icon. That’s the American success story. As vividly as it can be revealed. That will continue as an important element of the piece. And now that I’m understanding deliverance from a prophetic point of view, it’s allowing me to embrace eyes who can see the glory.
André De Shields as JB © Lia Chang

André De Shields as JB © Lia Chang

One of the new characters that Alfred and I are experimenting with is a character called JB. Once you meet and hear the character, and are introduced to what is in the character’s heart and in his mind-you’ll know that it isn’t James Brown, it’s James Baldwin, who fits perfectly in the prophetic continuum of Mine Eyes. When I said we were going to use this element of anachronism and prophecy, if you recall, from the February 9 version of Mine Eyes, Frederick Douglass talked about things that he could not have experienced and referred to events that he could not have experienced. The audience living in the 21st century knew exactly what he was talking about because they had seen it come. They had experienced James Baldwin as one of the future icons to whom Frederick Douglass refers. And there is historical similarity between Baldwin in the 60’s and 70’s and Douglass in the 1860’s and 70’s. Both political activists. Both expatriates for parts of their lives. Both taking on racism in their native country. Both living through the turmoil of violence-civil war for Frederick Douglass, urban resurrection for James Baldwin. And now historian George Schulman, author of American Prophecy, Race and Redemption in American Political Culture, and other historians have put Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin in the continuum of political prophets who have expressed far seeing ideas about where America is headed and are no longer with us, but we are to experience what they were foretelling.

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.

André De Shields and Katja Andreiev Photo by Lia Chang

André De Shields and costume designer Katja Andreiev. Photo by Lia Chang

What I’m also learning as I continue my research is that the prophecies don’t come full blown out of the mouths of these giants. They start as dreams for the country which has oppressed them. America is always seen in terms of the dream. Everybody wants a piece of the American dream.

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.

André De Shields in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre at the Alliance in Altanta. © Lia Chang

André De Shields in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre at the Alliance in Altanta. © Lia Chang

So it is your personal life in the Theatre?
It is my personal life in the theater, but as I said before when I was quoting Honoré de Balzac, “Constant Toil is the Law of Life as well as Art.” I have lived that, Eye to the sky, ear to the ground, nose to the grindstone for 40 years. It’s constantly had its rewards, but this is one of the big payoffs. That I don’t have to write something and beg someone to read it. I’ve been commissioned. Now whether or not it gets produced is another question. But it’s a delicious question. It’s a question that I don’t only have an appetite for. It’s a question that will be answered.

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.

André De Shields and baby sister Carmen Tisdale. Photo by Lia Chang

André De Shields and baby sister Carmen Tisdale, who came in from Baltimore for the opening night of Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe. Photo by Lia Chang

Were your parents supportive?
They thought it was a crazy idea. If you could have asked me this question when I was growing up, I would have told you I’m the least talented of my family because my brothers all belonged to a singing group called The Montels. They were out on the street. That whole classic idea of singing in the rain under a street lamp. My sisters were better dancers than I. I came from a family where everyone was naturally talented, but that was discouraged. I’m not saying my family per se, but it was considered as cooning and were trying to get away from that. But I cooned my way to a top. What can I say?

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 or by calling (212) 868-4444. For special group discounts call (212) 244-3300.

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’.

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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

Lia Chang

Lia Chang

Lia Chang is an actor, performance and fine art botanical photographer and an award-winning multimedia journalist. A former syndicated arts and entertainment columnist for KYODO News, Lia is the New York Bureau Chief for She writes about culture, style and Asian American issues for a variety of publications and this Backstage Pass with Lia Chang blog. As a photographer and videographer, Lia is frequently tapped to collaborate with artists, organizations and companies in establishing their documentary photo archive. She has been documenting her colleagues and contemporaries in the arts, fashion and journalism since making her stage debut as Liat in the National Tour of South Pacific, with Robert Goulet and Barbara Eden.

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