Tony Award winner and multi-Tony nominee André De Shields was honored by the Sarah Siddons Society with the organization’s 66th Annual “Actor of the Year Award” at their benefit held late last month in Chicago.
The 2021 benefit included an interview between De Shields and Chicago Midwest Emmy-Award recipient Ed Tracy, congratulatory messages from influential individuals in his life, musical selections from many of his memorable shows performed by some of Chicago’s most talented rising stars under the musical direction of David Fiorello and the induction of the Sarah Siddons Society 2021 Scholarship recipients. The event was produced by Board Member and long-time Chicago event producer Denise McGowan Tracy.
The event was filmed at The Edge Theater and will be streamed on November 28th. For more information, visit: www.sarahsiddonssociety.org.
The Society spoke about the importance of this award. “We feel it is especially meaningful that Chicago’s oldest and most prestigious theater award is going to such a deserving and accomplished actor as André De Shields in the city where he made his professional debut and has given stellar performances with so many legendary theater companies over the years,” said Martin Balogh, President, Sarah Siddons Society.
A showstopper at age 75, De Shields was the triple-crown winner of the 2019 award season, garnering Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Grammy awards for his universally praised role as Messenger to the Gods, Hermes, in “Hadestown.” In an unparalleled career spanning more than half a century, De Shields has distinguished himself as an actor, director, philanthropist and educator. His defining theatrical performances include roles in the original Broadway productions of “The Full Monty” (Tony Award nomination), “Play On!” (Tony Award nomination), “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Emmy Award) and the titular role in “The Wiz.”
I was able to ask De Shields a few questions about his whirlwind career and particularly this honor. “Receiving the Sarah Siddons Award resonates differently than many of my other accolades in that the honor is not tainted by any deed of competition, thereby dismissing any excessive appeal to ego,” he said. “Rather, the emphasis is on the service that the Society renders to young people experiencing the nascent stage of their careers and/or those promising theatre students whose journeys might benefit from scholarship assistance. Moreover, the focus of the Society’s mission is Chicago-centric.”
More than 50 years ago, De Shields’ professional career began when he starred at the Shubert Theatre in the Chicago production of “Hair.” He has been back to the city many times and says this return simply makes the circle fuller. “Since then, I have frequently returned to Chicago for reasons of work, residency, mentorship and tribute, accumulating in the process three Jeff Awards. Therefore, the ‘circle’ that is time, that is history, that is legacy and that is my relationship to Chicago does become fuller. With each visit the ‘circle’ grows wider, more diverse, more inclusive and more healing.”
The veteran actor, who is also a charter member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, didn’t pinpoint a most memorable performance, but he preferred to keep things in the here and now. “The most memorable performance is always the one being assayed in the present tense. That is the fundamental rule of the creative process: live in the moment. That means that the character of Hermes, in ‘Hadestown,’ is currently my most memorable performance.
“Not only because Hermes is partly an amalgam of elements from all roles preceding him, but also because Hermes possesses a literacy, an intellectual acumen and a sense of humor that can only be achieved through the challenging entertainment of attempting to discern life’s complex and contradictory conundrum regarding destiny.” He said that those conditions do not exist, for example, in “The Wiz,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and other notable plays in which he has starred.
And De Shields is now in a position to further help others in the arts world with the creation of a fund that will support artistic projects created, performed, designed, or produced by BIPOC and other people who are historically underrepresented on stages and in audiences.
“In late September, my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Elizabeth Snodgrass, Director of Wisconsin Union Theater, and other Wisconsin Union and Wisconsin Union Theater team members announced the creation of a new initiative: the André De Shields Fund, which led to the first André De Shields H’20 Scholarship Award being presented at Boston Conservatory at Berklee to Jayden Nelson BFA ’25.”
Nelson will benefit from great guidance, and De Shields offers advice for others. “The most crucial advice I can offer to those individuals at the beginning of their theatrical journey is the wisdom bomb I dropped as my Tony Award acceptance speech in 2019. “The cardinal rules are: Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”
And finally, I asked De Shields about his iconic role as Mr. Wiz in 1974 and into the 1975 Broadway production of “The Wiz” and the lack of Blacks on Broadway at that time. “During an era when Broadway was largely dismissive of both Black art and Black artists, the Great White Way was exactly that, a bastion of capitalism with little to no interest in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. The production was promoted as a Soul musical, and therein lies the essence of the show’s success,” he said. “‘The Wiz’ was a challenge to the soul of theretofore white-dominated Broadway.
“I devised the role of Mr. Wiz as a living, singing, dancing and political statement that Black was not only beautiful, but necessary to the progress of American artistic expression. Dressed in the epitome of 70s peacock fashion, Mr. Wiz sported a blazingly white, skin-tight, bell-bottomed jumpsuit and a billowing cape that suggested power and nobility. From his sky-high Afro to his five-inch platform shoes, Mr. Wiz was a symbol of elevated self-respect, recalling the words of the Godfather of Soul, ‘Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud!’”
He added that this was a game changer for commercial theatre in the 70s and that he still gets excited when performing his signature song. “Prior to ‘The Wiz,’ Black Americans did not have a reputation as theatre-goers. Moreover, the commercial theatre appeared actively inhospitable to producing entertainment that would reflect and encourage the development of a Black audience. Without raising a fist, or protesting in the streets, ‘The Wiz’ revolutionized commercial theatre simply by allowing a young Black “Dorothy” (Stephanie Mills) to speak the universally accepted wisdom of children all over the world, ‘When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.’”
I applaud De Shields and his trailblazing career, which has left an indelible mark on the arts world, and look forward to his future work.
Since its inception in 1952, the mission of the Sarah Siddons Society has been to fund scholarships to promising theater arts students at top Chicago area universities including The Theater Department, Columbia College; The Theatre School at DePaul University; Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University and Northwestern University School of Communications.
Learn more about André De Shields at www.andredeshields.com.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].