“Think of your problems as a cloud; the more perspective you give them, the more real they will appear. But if you approach them, before you know it, you will be on the other side of them.”
So says André De Shields. With 14 Broadway credits to his name—including starring in The Wiz, Prymate, Play On!, The Full Monty, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and, of course, currently starring in Hadestown—is it any wonder that the world considers him a theatre god?
While watching him sparkle as Hermes—the role that finally secured him a 2019 Tony Award after two previous nominations—eight shows a week, it’s easy to forget that in addition to performing, he is also an acclaimed director and choreographer. In fact, when he isn’t walking away with the audience’s adoration, De Shields bides his time working behind the scenes on numerous productions. From conceiving, writing, and directing his own Broadway show in the ’80s—André De Shields’ Haarlem Nocturne—to choreographing two of Bette Midler’s Broadway concerts in the early ’70s, this marvelous man has been doing it all since the start of his career.
It’s no surprise then that the Drama Desk Awards committee nearly broke down into open warfare this past year after its youngest members refused to advance a motion to honor De Shields with a lifetime achievement award, despite his having secured five previous nominations. Perhaps they were confused by his ageless beauty or forgot that his five-decade-long career has garnered every other conceivable honor, including the Emmy, Grammy, Outer Critics Circle, Obie, Audelco, Bistro, Jefferson, Richard Seff Award from the Actors’ Equity Foundation, National Black Theatre, and Oscar Hammerstein awards.
In an ironic twist, he ended up securing a Drama Desk award anyway, winning it on his own merit. Not that De Shields noticed the slight; as a proponent of “breaking the Methuselah Code”—creating a legacy that extends beyond the normal life span and living a long life on top of that—he plans to rock out for at least 74 more years, and at the tender age of 74, he is at the beginning of many more honors to come.
This uncompromising vision has kept De Shields sauntering to the vibe of his own joyful melody, whether facing homophobia, racism, HIV, or the death of loved ones, including his life partner and mentor—Chico Kasinoir, a playwright with whom he collaborated on many productions—who died from AIDS-related complications in 1992.
Every year, De Shields participates in numerous fundraisers dedicated to raising money to assist people living with HIV and their families. At each of these fundraisers, such as Broadway’s annual Red Bucket Follies, he makes a point of telling the audience the reason he is there is that when Kasinoir was dying and they had no place to turn, it was Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that helped keep them going. These appearances are his declaration of love for a community that embraced him in his time of need.
Though it has gone unremarked upon in the general media, De Shields has been thriving while living with HIV for over three decades. To kick off TheBody’s Black History Month celebration, De Shields sat down with me in his “rapture”-colored dressing room at the Walter Kerr Theatre to reveal how he deals with mortality, his love of literature, and a deep connection to the spiritual realm, all while serving as a possibility model for rocking it fabulously on your own terms.
Juan Michael Porter II: Your performance as Hermes is miraculous. You really tap into his duality as the messenger to the gods and the god of mischief. It’s funny because in many traditions, the god of mischief is also the god of evil—I’m thinking of Loki or Reynard the Fox—but your incarnation has more nuance to it than simple good or evil. One could get into trouble with Hermes.
André De Shields: Exactly.
JMPII: But with you, that’s not what he’s here for.
De Shields: No. No, that’s not what he’s doing at all. He’s unraveling all the nuances so that you can take advantage of them; so that you can become the master of your own destiny.
JMPII: How is it that you’re able to embody those nuances so generously?
De Shields: Because when I was visited by the psychopomp—the manifestation of death—I didn’t cover my face. I didn’t get scared. I didn’t run in the other direction. I said, “Come in. Sit down. Let’s have a cup of tea.”
JMPII: You’re talking about HIV. What do you say to someone who’s struggling with their diagnosis?
De Shields: If you consider contracting the human immunodeficiency virus a problem, this is what I suggest: Invite the problem to sit down for a cup of tea and ask, “Why are you here?” Be patient, because the answer will reveal itself. And while the answer is being revealed, and while you are being patient, you will achieve radiant health in spite of the HIV. I want to make this as clear as I can. Once the psychopomp understands that the individual he is visiting is not looking for a higher love, then there’s nothing to collect. So we’ll have tea, and then you’re going away.
JMPII: How did you come to that?
De Shields: First of all, I love myself. I’m not in love with myself, but I do love myself, because I’ve learned if I can’t love me, how can I love someone else? And I trust myself, which is why my soul is not ready to leave. Because we’re having a good time here. We’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see, things to achieve.
That’s what you have to understand about HIV; you can’t be fatalistic about it. That’s what happened in the late ’70s and ’80s: “Oh, I’ve contracted HIV. I better start preparing to die.” Why? Did the psychopomp pay you a visit? If the psychopomp did, did you invite it to sit down for tea and explain why the visitation was necessary?
JMPII: How do you feel about your recent blessings?
De Shields: I’m content with my lot in life right now. Much has been made of my receiving my first Tony Award at 73. I did an interview, and the interviewer said, “What does it feel like to get your first Tony Award so late in life?” And I responded, “I think it’s perfectly timed, because I’m just hitting my middle age.” The interviewer was gobsmacked, to say the least.
JMPII: I think for those of us in the community, it feels long overdue.
De Shields: I understand that. It’s about time, and it’s about timing, and it’s about what the community has expected to happen with another person’s career. But that’s kibitzing. And I don’t mind it, but I made my covenant with the universe years ago, which was simply, “I’m not concerned about if it will happen, because when it does, I’m going to be ready.”
JMPII: You look ready in every performance of yours that I’ve ever seen. It’s a physicality thing. Even in Hadestown, you basically dance your way through the entire show.
De Shields: I appreciate that observation. In none of the many interviews I’ve done has anyone said that. It’s something that I have considered for myself; what I’m doing as Hermes to tell this story. Now, I do not consider myself a dancer, only because I did not train. I simply used the gift that I was given. The storytelling involved with Hadestown is about a community of supra-natural creatures who think in terms of infinity, forever, and eternity. There is no need to rush; there’s no need to hurry; therefore, they live their lives luxuriously. I don’t mean to say casually or without a care, but without being conscious of time. I think people have realized that about my inhabiting this character; they understand that “Hermes is moving like no one I’ve ever seen before.”
JMPII: I know you have a creative team backing you, but does that understanding come naturally to you?
De Shields: I did and continue to know exactly who Hermes is, and what parts of me will best benefit his interior architecture. Now, to say it came naturally, I’m not going to claim that, but I will say it came organically, because [director] Rachel Chavkin is the one who set up the physical culture in which we could all create, and Anaïs Mitchell is the one who wrote the incandescent literature that made it possible for Rachel to build the architecture. Put us in that environment, and we will do what comes naturally.
JMPII: Do you teach?
De Shields: I have taught.
JMPII: I ask because the way you play Hermes feels so nurturing.
De Shields: I like the word you just chose. I relish sharing what I know, sharing what I have experienced with anyone who’s open to receiving. Now if you want to call that teaching, fine. I prefer nurturing and nourishing. It’s like that saying, “If you see something, say something.” I say, “If you know something, share something.” Storytelling is all about saying to the current and succeeding generations how we got where we are. That’s the responsibility of the storyteller. Hermes is a griot, and he asks questions. “Do you trust each other?” And then he corrects it: “No. Do you trust yourselves?” Because that’s what’s going to make a difference. And as much as we love the two lovers in the show, they don’t trust themselves. That’s why they have to go all the way back to the beginning to do it all over again, until through them, we sentient beings understand that there isn’t anything wrong with us except that we don’t trust ourselves.
JMPII: I don’t think that people appreciate all of the research that you have invested into your performance.
De Shields: I want to create something imprinted with my spiritual signature. When we create art, we have to give it away, open a door, and leave the door open for people who are following in our wake..
Hermes is young in terms of the theogony of gods. If you start with the original god—Khaos, the void—in the genealogy, Hermes is forever, but he’s young, and he’s one of the few gods whose name is metaphorical. Now, we have used the names of gods for metaphorical purposes.
JMPII: The Apollonian ideal; Herculean feat.
De Shields: Yes, but the names themselves are not metaphorical. They are simply names that we took and made represent something else. But Hermes’ actual name is metaphorical. “Herm” is a stone. Now why is that important? Because that’s the way humanity initially created culture. That’s the way we initially made roads; pathways. By taking stone and connecting two, three, or four of them into an expressway, we build a bridge.
JMPII: Hermes, the god of travel and messengers, and the guide to the underworld. How do you maintain all of that information while staying connected to what’s going on around you?
De Shields: When one is not part of the story that’s being told, one is still telling the story. So you have to ask yourself the question, “When there are pauses, when I’m not actually telling the story, what am I going to do? Am I going to disappear? No. I’m going to dance from one pause to the next; from one moment to the next, I’m going to flow.” I’m going to represent. I’m going to be the metaphor that people need to understand what’s going on; the connective tissue; the bridge. I’m am the stone that signifies what is going on.
JMPII: You hold it all together.
De Shields: Yeah. No one else has asked me these questions before. I mean, I’ve had lovely interviews, but you’re getting to the heart of Hermes here.
JMPII: It’s because you put so much of yourself into it. Seeing you in this role means so much to the community.
De Shields: When I won the Tony, it moved the earth under my feet, because it changed everyone’s perspective of who this man is. And it gave the community that had been invested in my evolution an opportunity to say, “You know what? I’m so proud of you.” I’ve had people stop me on the street—I’m not exaggerating—people stop me on the street and just collapse in my arms, crying. And I hold them for a while, and then they go about their business.
And then there are the people who are walking on the other side of the street and they go, “Aight!” (Hermes’ call that opens the show each night). I love that. And then other people say, “I see you, Mr. De Shields!” Because what they had wanted for me and had expected for me finally occurred, it gives them the license to say, “See, I always knew that was gonna happen. I didn’t know when, but now that it has, I own five minutes of your time to let you know that I’ve had your back. I’ve had you for all 50 years that you’ve been here, and now you’ve delivered. Thank you.”
JMPII: You’re another dream fulfilled; our possibility model. I had an argument with somebody who refused to believe that this was your first Tony Award until we googled it. Frankly, I think you should have gotten it for [the show] Prymate.
De Shields: Well, then you don’t need to interview me, because if you saw Prymate, you saw André de Shields working.
JMPII: That’s why I call you a dancer. Your performance was true physical storytelling.
De Shields: I wasn’t using French vocabulary. I wasn’t using tour jeté.
JMPII: Did you need to?
De Shields: That’s what people think when they say, “Oh, you’re a dancer.” They’re thinking I’m going to lift my leg and do a développé or a rond de jambe. No. I am a physical performer, and the story that you are experiencing, you would have missed if I were not a physical performer. Because some things, you cannot express with a word.
JMPII: Some things you see, and then you understand. Watching you sing, dance, and act—it’s actually very African to me; the African tradition of storytelling.
De Shields: I did an interview recently, and the interviewer asked, “How do you do it?” and I said, “Do what?” He said, “How do you do the things that you do?” I said, “Look at me. What do you see?” He said, “I see you.” I said, “OK, then look beyond me. Look over my shoulders and what do you see?” He said, “I don’t understand.” I said, “You should see Africa. You should see the Diaspora right over my shoulder.” You know, when people talk about “all the shoulders I stand on”; all that stuff? That’s just a miniature. What you should see is Africa. Yeah. Endless. Vast.
De Shields: Infinite. That’s how I do what I do. I’m a conduit from all of that. I’m being the best tool that I can to tell the greatest story that has ever needed to be told.
JMPII: What’s next?
De Shields: Now that I’m in the [Emmy, Grammy, Tony] club, I want to make art with the people who want to make art with me. That’s all I’m going to do now.
JMPII: That sounds like a long list.
De Shields: And I’m not in a hurry. That’s what I’m offering now: patience, fortitude, long suffering, self-trust, self-love, being supremely confident. Lots of people won’t dig you for it, but you will achieve what you—“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” That’s what I’m trying to work out here.
That’s the gift that André De Shields has for the world: an infinite reach, tempered with patience and love.
André De Shields is currently starring on Broadway in the hit musical, Hadestown, as Hermes. You can also catch him delivering a brilliant song-and-dance performance about algebra and a missing eye on Netflix in John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch or in his cabaret show, Old Dawg, New Tricks, which he recently performed at The Appel Room at New York City’s Lincoln Center.