The dynamic actor André De Shields likes a challenge and over the course of his career as an actor and musical theatre performer has often embraced the iconic with both physical and intellectual gusto. In the seventies, he played the title role in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” and was an avatar of Harlem cool in “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” the Fats Waller musical. More recently, he received a Tony Award nomination for his role in the musical “The Full Monty;” played a 350-pound gorilla with a penchant for blonds in Mark Medoff’s controversial failure “Prymate,” about testing on animals; and as a counterweight perhaps, immediately following portrayed the Clarence Darrow role in “Inherit the Wind” about the Scopes Monkey trial and the teaching of evolution versus creationism.
Now De Shields is playing King Lear, that leviathan of the dramatic repertory, in his third collaboration with the Classical Theatre of Harlem. CTH, founded in 1999 and dedicated to presenting the classics uptown, is presenting “King Lear” starting Friday, September 29. In addition to performing in Lear, De Shields is teaching at Hunter College this fall, continuing the educational sideline he’s maintain since getting a Master’s in African American studies from New York University in 1991. De Shields is passionate about the vitalizing interplay between the physically arduous and the polemical and no doubt his Lear will bring fresh controversy and insight to the tale of the deluded leader.
Christopher Murray: “King Lear” is like the Mount Everest of Shakespearean roles, very demanding both emotionally and physically. Why Lear, why now? Are you ready?
André De Shields: As a triple Capricorn who has lived long enough to be experiencing his third cycle of rule by the melancholy and brooding planet Saturn, I have learned that the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next. “The Wiz” was my Alps; “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” my Kilimanjaro; “The Full Monty,” my Denali; and “Prymate,” my Andes. Everest is the obvious next challenge. Am I ready? In my forty years as a professional actor, I’ve never been more fit physically, emotionally and spiritually.
CM: I hear this version is going to integrate elements of African culture. How does an Elizabethan tragedy intersect with tribal mythologies?
AD: I’ve heard the same rumors, but I attribute that to the industry’s not so latent racial elitism. It seems that each time a black actor essays a role that has traditionally been the exclusive domain of white actors, the assumption is that the location has been changed to Africa. You’re warm, however, a more accurate guess would be Ancient Mesopotamia. As for “King Lear” being an Elizabethan tragedy, I find that construct much too claustrophobic. The story of Lear is as old as the lust for power, as contemporary as our current imperial presidency, and as timeless as the generational changing of the guard.
CM: The Classical Theatre of Harlem was founded by—go figure—two white guys and is kicking some serious ass with its reinterpretations of classics in a highly urban mode. This is your third outing with them, is it your artistic home?
AD: The Classical Theatre of Harlem is definitely one of my two artistic homes in New York, the other being Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. I crave collaborating with Artistic Director Alfred Preisser because he knows how to tear the skin off a play, while challenging the actor to demonstrate his power and move through fear to working at his greatest potential.
CM: Your performances have always been highly sexually charged from “The Wiz” and the Viper’s Drag in “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” down through “The Full Monty” and “Prymate.” Will that be the case with Lear? Is he going to be a sexy beast?
AD: I could not have expressed it better. But the character of Lear will be only one of many sexy beasts on display in this iteration of his tragedy. Every actor in this company casts a very long and sensual shadow. And that’s what I have missed from the various interpretations of the play that I have witnessed—the frank sexuality that is implicit in societies motivated by avarice, incest and nepotism.
CM: You continue to take enormous risks in your career as an actor, a director, and an educator. What drives you towards the controversial and unexpected?
AD: The urge to detonate stereotypes and, thereby, live as a free man. I’m not interested in forty acres and a mule. I want my inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
CM: As an out gay man and one with a strong political sensibility, do you think your sexuality has had an impact on your success in showbiz?
AD: My sexuality—and ‘‘tain’t nobody’s business if I do’—is a major factor in my long, sweet career. As a gay black man I suppose I’m expected to be timid, apologetic, and satisfied to be handed asexual supporting roles. But it is offensive to all artists to promulgate the lie that every alpha male is relentlessly heterosexual.
CM: You’re very generous in giving time to charity events and last June emceed Speaker Christine Quinn’s Gay Price celebration in City Hall marking the 20th anniversary of the passage of the gay rights bill in New York City. What’s the connection between art, activism, and community for you?
AD: I cannot express it any more eloquently than that great artist/scholar/activist Paul Robeson who said, “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
CM: With African American gay men being beset by so many challenges in our world, what has your journey taught you about survival and celebration?
AD: As a young man at the beginning of his journey I once thought that theatre as a way of life would be sufficient reason to celebrate having survived. As a mature man who has yet to hit his stride I now understand how erroneous that concept is. To survive is not enough, to thrive is not enough, to prevail is not enough. Theatre as a way of life is limiting and finite. On the other hand, theatre as a way to life is expansive and infinite. The next frontier for the gay African American male is to live beyond labels, with supreme confidence, uncompromised grace, and unmitigated beauty.