Theater Talk: Andre De Shields on his Tony for playing 'Hermes' in HADESTOWN, racism, and his future
Andre De Shields is always in demand, even during Covid, but found time to talk to Theater Talk about his Buffalo connections, why playing "Hermes" in HADESTOWN was so important to him (above and beyond the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical), and how racism helped forge his personal philosophy (see below). Ever elegant, wearing bespoke (custom made) clothing even during a Zoom call, Andre De Shields answered several questions about HADESTOWN, will it be back, will it tour, and if it does, will he be in the tour?
PHOTO: André De Shields won a 2019 Tony Award for his role as "Hermes" in HADESTOWN, adding to his Emmy and Grammy awards. Credit: 2019 Joseph Marzullo/WENN appearing in Playbill.com
As they say, every national story has a Buffalo connection, and the conversation with the star of THE WIZ, AINT' MISBEHAVIN', THE FULL MONTE, and HADESTOWN began with a story about teaching a class at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1990s when a student, Drew Kahn, asked: "Mr. De Shields, what are you doing here? Why not Broadway or Hollywood?" And De Shilds used one hand to point to the color of his skin on the other.
Fast forward to 1996 when Drew Kahn (today SUNY Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Theater at SUNY Buffalo State) has just created the "Oasis Theatre Company" on the Buff State campus. He called Andre De Shields and asked him to be his "Willy Loman" in the Oasis' premier performance, Arthur Millers' DEATH OF A SALESMAN. For De Shields, it was a breakthrough, and for the first time a review did NOT describe him as "Dancer De Shields" but as "Actor De Shields." One review of that July 1996 show was by the Buffalo News' Terry Doran who wrote: "To play Willy Loman, Kahn has made a surprising choice in Andre De Shields. De Shields has wide experience in theater, but his reputation rests largely in New York musical theater. Maybe it shouldn't be so limited...." Prescient words!
In July 2019, 50 years into his career, De Shields won his first Tony as Best Featured ACTOR in a musical for his role as Hermes in the Broadway hit HADESTOWN. He went on stage to deliver his acceptance speech wearing a black and gold tux, gold bow tie, cummerbund, and, best of all, gold shoes with wings. (Hermes the god himself would have been jealous.) Knowing that speeches were limited to only 90 seconds, he decided to not ramble on with a long list of names as others on stage before him had done, but instead decided to "create a wisdom bomb that I could drop on the audience... my personal IED."
We asked him to repeat the speech.
He said: “I would like to share with you just three cardinal rules of my sustainability and longevity."
"One: Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two: Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. And three: The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”
He told us that the four producers and the cast of HADESTOWN have monthly Zoom meetings, which De Shields said are primarily to keep driving home the message (as Covid has upended so many Broadway careers) "Not if, but when HADESTOWN returns, we want each of you to be with us."
He continued: "I want to return to HADESTOWN because of Cardinal rule 3 - 'The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.'"
"The Tony Award is the tangible symbol of the personal success that I have been in the process of achieving for 50 years. It is an example of that adage 'You reap what you sow, so in 2019 the seeds I had been sowing afforded me an abundant harvest. Part of that harvest was finally getting an opportunithy to be the erudite individual that I am in my personal life, but which Broadway had no use for, for many years.
"Again, I'm a black man They want me to dance, they want me to sing, to sweat and fall on my knees, which I did. But I had always wanted to be loved for my intellect, for my mastery of the English language, for my ability to tell a story deeply enought to transform indiviual lives, And HADESTOWN gave me that opportunity."
But De Shields wants to get to the show's first year anniversary (another mountain) before hanging up the role and letting another actor, who may be champing at the bit, to take it.
When asked if he would tour once the national tour starts, De Shields told Theater Talk: "I told the producers I was not interested in doing the national tour with the exception of cities wheree I have a community. So may I do only Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago? And the producers said 'No!'"