After a great television production of The Wiz Live that went “new school” with a cast that included Common, Queen Latifah, and Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba, Chicago will be treated to the talents of an “old-school” performer who fantastically played the character of “The Wiz” in the original Broadway production in 1975.”
André De Shields is in a current production of “Gotta Dance,” and most recently received the Excellence in the Arts Award from DePaul University’s Theater School. He shared some insight into his long, brilliant career and his thoughts about receiving the award. The Baltimore-born De Shields has performed in King Hedley II, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Jungle Book, among a number of off-Broadway and Broadway productions.
When asked whether he ever thinks it’s time to just rest and enjoy the fruits of his labor and let other performers do their thing, De Shields was enthusiastic and full of life. “The operative word in this question is ‘rest.’ If I rest, I rust—not unlike the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. A life in the theatre is a calling, just as much as a life in the clergy. One does not retire from either,” De Shields said. “My art is my ministry. Like a marriage vow, the covenant the Actor makes with his calling to the theatre is until death do them part. On the physical plane, that which keeps me going is a combination of vigorous exercise, judicious eating and constant prayer. While on the meta-physical plane, the understanding that theatre—in its most fundamental form—is storytelling, and that storytelling has the power to transform lives, to alter governments, and to change the world keeps me going.”
The DePaul Award took him by surprise, De Shields said, as he shared an excerpt from his award letter. Dear Mr. De Shields, Greetings from The Theatre School at DePaul University! I am writing you with the hope that you would be able to honor us by accepting our Award for Excellence in the Arts at a gala event in the fall. Your illustrious career as an actor, director, choreographer and educator make you a perfect role model for our students. You are a living legend. It would be a privilege to honor you in Chicago on behalf of our students, faculty, and staff. De Shields was honored. “Like a rainbow magically appearing out of the blue, I received a letter from John Culbert, Dean of the Theatre School at DePaul University. Of the many awards and accolades I have received during a career that spans 46 years, the Award for Excellence in the Arts ranks among the highest,” DeShields added. “It recognizes the service the Actor renders as a latter day alchemist to society at large.”
DeShields waxed nostalgic about some of the roles that he’s played. “My journey in the theatre has taken me from chorus boy to featured player, from leading man to character actor, from Sportin’ Life to Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, from messianic to anthropomorphic roles. With each character that I inhabit, I allow him to approach the stage as if he were the central figure, because the stage demands that it be commanded.”
He plays Ron in “Gotta Dance,” a man whose life has been stalled by bereavement. Two years prior Ron’s wife Judith passed away, leaving Ron to wither in endless mourning. On a bet, Ron joins a senior citizen dance company, where he encounters people of his ken, thereby restoring his zest for life. The transformation takes place in the guise of Hip Hop dance. De Shield’s “Ron” is sure to please. “I deliver because people come to the theatre for very specific reasons: entertainment, enlightenment and ecstasy. And if I can provide any one or combination of these three experiences, then all is well,” De Shields said.
Finally De Shields discussed the new The Wiz production and the influence of Black artists and performers on the Broadway and live theatre scenes. “The original Broadway production of The Wiz was a game-changing effort on the Great White Way. Because by way of its success it leveled the playing field of an artistic terrain that had far too long been inhospitable to African Americans,” he said. “Previous to the 1975 production of The Wiz, the iconic story of a young girl who learns universal truths as the result of being transplanted to a land of fantasy by a natural phenomenon, was the exclusive domain of white actors. After the advent of The Wiz, there was a measurable increase in all-Black casts, non-traditional casting, ethnic diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion among the commercial arts. And now, 40 years later and still live, perhaps The Wiz will finally achieve its well-deserved place in the canon of American musical literature. The production is now in the hands of a generation whose very nourishment has been creative activism.”
When asked about this generation of creative activists, like Alicia Keys, who was involved with the New York production of Stickfly, and Jada and Will Smith and Jay Z, who were involved in bringing Fela! to Broadway, De Shields replied: “It is a must. I applaud those who have stepped up. However, for African-Americans to stay in the cultural game of elevating the Black experience in the Arts, one-time investing doesn’t cut it. Effective producing on the American stage requires consistent risk taking, and the constant vetting of talent from sources sanctioned and unfixed. The challenge has been met by productions such as The Wiz; August Wilson’s Ten Play Cycle and; most recently, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton. Meeting the challenge is always difficult, sometimes dangerous, but not impossible.”
De Shields is ready for his next challenge in “Gotta Dance,” the new Broadway-bound musical about professional basketball’s first ever aged 60-and-older dance team, which begins at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., December 13, running through January 17, 2016.