John Doyle presenting Andre De Shields to the Theater Hall of Fame, Nov. 18, 2019
A couple of years ago I was casting a production of “As You Like It,” which was to play at Bay Street and then at Classic Stage. It was to be with a company which already included Ellen Burstyn, Cas Morgan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine. I needed to find a mature actor who was experienced in both musical theater and classical text to play the mercurial, musical, magical, great Shakespeare clown — Touchstone.
My dear friend, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, one day said to me, “ You should meet Andre De Shields. He’s your kind of actor.” Annie and I have shared many rehearsal rooms. She understands that I lean toward those who are inventive, facile with language, emotionally available, able to think out of the box, and who can be just a little naughty or even with a hint of madness.
And so, I met Andre De Shields. Now, I knew about “The Wiz,” and all the Broadway stuff, and the off-Broadway body of work, and the Emmy Award and the Tony nominations, so I thought I better make this a good meeting, in a nice place. Somewhere that reflects the man: classy, ageless, known and loved. So, we had tea at the Algonquin. It was one of the loveliest and most memorable hours of my New York journey.
We shared stories of family rather than stories about the theater. We talked about childhoods in Baltimore and in Scotland. About both going to university — he in Madison, Wisconsin, me, believe it or not, in Athens, Georgia. About “Hair” in Chicago, “The Wiz” on Broadway, working at La Mama, working in Harlem. We talked about Shakespeare’s beautiful play that focusses upon the Seven Ages of Man, as we were both approaching the latter Ages. We talked about the theater, why we love it, why we still do it, how much it has changed since Dorothy Parker sat at that table and probably had similar conversations. We talked spirituality. You don’t have to spend much time with Andre to realize that you’re breathing the same air as a deeply spiritual, thoughtful man. An artist.
I have a plaque in my office that reads “The Sole Purpose of An Artist is to Increase the Treasure of Light in the Universe.” Andre lights up the stage. An actor, a director, a choreographer — the ultimate theater artist. Because of that talent, which is a manifestation of this beautiful spiritual naughty human being, he truly increases the Treasure of Light in the Universe.
I was in a rehearsal-room conversation the other day with a young colleague whose life’s journey is not so very far from the beginning of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages. He said, “Do you know what I think is the biggest measure of success in the theater? To stick it out. To last the course.” I thought, “you don’t know how right you are!” And then I thought of Andre. Not only is the success to last the course, but the real prize is to “peak” in the seventh age. Great shows come and go. Prize-givings come and go. But nobody who loves the theater will forget the year that Andre De Shields finally won his Tony. Not at the end of a career — there is no end for Andre — but at the rich, mature, experienced, well-deserved peak!
It was enormously meaningful to me when Andre asked if I would speak tonight. A black man and a white man, from different continents but of the same generation, who have stuck it out, who know the highs and the lows, who’ve had triumphs and disasters and have hopefully “treated those two impostors just the same” and who, perhaps most important of all — still love the theater.
When we were growing up, I am sure we were both told that the most meaningful thing in life is to achieve the positive recognition of your peers. Bravo Andre. The boy from Baltimore joined the Theater Hall of Fame. Not bad my friend — not at all bad. Ladies and Gentlemen: Andre De Shields!
Provided courtesy of John Doyle.