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Long-term Survivors

André De Shields Looks Back On His Quietly Historic Broadway Career

credit Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

The acclaimed actor discusses his five decades on Broadway and being a long-term survivor of HIV.

It would be easy to think that winning a Tony Award at the age of 73, after almost five decades on Broadway, would have only a nominal effect on one's career. When André De Shields won in 2019 for his role of Hermes in the musical, Hadestown, he'd already originated roles in iconic Broadway shows like Ain't Misbehavin', The Full Monty, and The Wiz. Shields had created a career that was revered. Yet receiving a Tony, he says, "legitimized" his career.

"Prior to Hadestown, I played The Magical Negro. I have no regrets about that. But that was the mold out of which I was creating a career. But all the while...and this is going to sound corny, but it's true. All the while I'm saying, "Why doesn't someone cast me for my mind? For my intellect? Am I really just another pretty face?" And it came together in Hadestown."

Shields recently left Hadestown and will return to Broadway this fall in the newest revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

On this week's episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast, Shields talks about the five decades he's spent working on Broadway, being a long-term survivor of HIV, and his life mission of spreading BlackManMajesty.

You can listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or read excerpts below.

Jeffrey Masters: The first Broadway show you acted in, Warp!, closed after 12 performances. Your second Broadway show, Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Ever Forget It), closed during previews. You were in your 20s at the time. Was any part of you worried that would be how your career would continue to be? 

André De Shields: No. By the time I had reached New York, I had spent sufficient years in the university of hard knocks to understand that there were tests, not unlike the examinations you have to pass in school, in order to get from one grade to the next. There were certain tests that life was going to ask you to pass, so you needed to graduate.

And I certainly was not unaware of New York's reputation, as everything is done as test by fire, and if you come out the other side of the fire, unscorched, unburnt, not crying, not complaining, then you've passed the test.

I identify, at age 76, as Afro Queer. It took a lot of fire. It took a lot of leaping through hoops that were on fire to get to the comfort of this conversation even.

JM: When did you become comfortable having a conversation like this?

ADS: It was in my 20s. I just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. And the very month that I graduated, I booked my first professional show. That was Hair in Chicago. So in terms of preparing for what we call Life and how impatient we can be with the passing of time — we always think it's too fast or it's too slow. I learned at the age of 23, that time is longer than anything, so live your life accordingly. That means no stress, no fear, no expectation. Simply pursue those blessings, those experiences, those situations. Those miracles, pursue those miracles that have your name on it.

JM: Did that also mean no closets?

ADS: Well, the closets I have, I keep my clothes in.

JM: I was wondering if when you were cast in your third Broadway show, The Wiz, if you were open about your sexuality at that time.

ADS: Yes, of course. Of course. I say of course because this is after four years of college. At the University of Wisconsin, which during the late '60s, early '70s was one of the four hotbeds of political activism across this nation. The political veil of innocence that had been the 50s in this country was being torn from the eyes of the United States of America. I had just finished my junior year abroad.  So I was 19, 20, going to school in Denmark, looking back at the country I just left, which was a flame in urban insurrection or what we were calling them, riots.

This was my objective point of view: I just left a country where I was essentially the scum of the earth for no other reason but the color of my skin. And I was studying in a country where I was treated the exact opposite, like royalty. People wanted to touch my skin, people wanted to touch my hair. They'd never seen anything like this immaculately groomed negro boy. And of course, I was buff, I was young, I was all that good stuff.

And it gave me a perspective. And that's all we need to get from one day to the next. All we need is perspective, obviously the appropriate perspective. But being in Europe in '66 and '67, where a 19-year-old black boy was exotic as Josephine Baker was in the '20s in Paris, it blew my mind. It turned my head 360 degrees and then more. So when I came back to the states, I was prepared for that graduation — the graduation being, "What belongs to me, is on its way to me. Don't fret. Be as authentic as you can be. Know who you are, be who you are."

JM: I wanted to ask about you being out about your sexuality because there were so few roles for Black actors on Broadway back then. I didn't know if being out would have made a short list even shorter.

ADS: I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland in the innermost of the inner cities. Life was no joke, although we learned at a very early age to laugh in the face of adversity. As a toddler, I would hear the word queer, I would hear the word fairy, I would hear the word faggot. I would hear all of these words that were alien to my active vocabulary. I didn't know what they meant, but I was aware of the poison in them.

You see, curiously enough, this all has to do with virginity. Again, I'm a generation, maybe two generations ahead of you. If you were heterosexual, but had never had a homosexual experience, you were still a virgin. If you were homosexual and never had a heterosexual experience, you were a virgin. You're not fully sexually knowledgeable until you've eaten pussy and sucked dick. It's all an experiment. You have to discover what gets you aroused, what gets you excited? Before that, it's all experimentation.

JM: Are you saying that experimentation was a part of life and more encouraged back then?

ADS: I wouldn't say it was encouraged. But I would say there was no closet for me to come out of. I understood at a very early age that if I was going to live beyond 25 years, I had to get out of Baltimore. Just as today, death looks into the face of a Black male from the time he is born, either from drugs or police brutality.

Now, in terms of knowing how different I of the things I learned during my junior year abroad, and I traveled to many countries in Europe. There are fields, endless fields of gorgeous flowers. In France for instance, there are endless fields of sunflowers, those tall titan stalks with what looks like the sun on the top of them. Well, what I learned was, in a field of sunflowers, a rose is a weed. You get me? So in a field of people who are experimenting with their sexuality, each of us is a distinctive idiosyncratic flower, until we learn about the politics of monolithic culture. Until we leave the initial diversity of where we are and venture into the world of sameness, a monotony of rules of regulations.

We force ourselves into conditions that don't nourish us...trying to be something we are not, trying to be something we can never be. And trying to remain sane while doing that, it's not possible. You're either going to be healthy and authentic or you're going to be existing and demented.

JM: New York City was having a sexual revolution when you first go there. And on top of that, you were The Wiz in The Wiz, a lead in a hit Broadway show. How did that affect your personal life? Did you have people fawning over you? 

ADS: Well, I'm going to take your lead by using the word fawn. People didn't fawn over me until Hadestown.

In The Wiz, we're talking about 1975 when it opened on Broadway, that was midway through the decade of permissiveness when it was okay for men to wear tight clothes, to have long hair, to be beautiful, to be available. Today, I am an unreconstructed hippie. My formative years were the summers of love, '67, '68, '69. I came to New York in '73. I came to New York, which is the citadel of self-expression. But when I came to New York, people would cross the street to get away from me. And I thought, "Wait a minute. I'm here because I can be who I am. I can be my authentic self. Am I really discovering that New York is provincial?"

Masters: And being in a hit Broadway show did not change that?

ADS: Well, being in a hit Broadway show made me acceptable. To do that show I had to grow my hair out, I had to take the earrings out of my ears. I had to stop wearing halters. I had to take off my hot pants. I had to stop wearing my silver five-inch platforms because when I came in from Chicago, I was real. But New York wasn't.

Now, I take some of that as part of my soulful makeup. At the core of my being, I am idiosyncratic. Let me put it that way. But when you wear the signifiers of being idiosyncratic, it's a bit much to take. 

JM: I'm stuck on this thing that you just said, that people didn't start fawning over you until Hadestown. Even without that show, you still would have had a rather incredible career on Broadway.

ADS: I would. I would have an idiosyncratic career. You erase Hadestown I would not have a Tony. Getting the Tony is what legitimized my idiosyncrasy. "Oh, he isn't untouchable. Oh, he isn't a leper. Oh, he doesn't have three heads."

Although I would say prior to Hadestown, I played The Magical Negro. I have no regrets about that. But that was the mold out of which I was creating a career. But all the while...and this is going to sound corny, but it's true. All the while I'm saying, "Why doesn't someone cast me for my mind? For my intellect? Am I really just another pretty face?" And it came together in Hadestown.

Hermes is a psychopomp. The psychopomp is the creature — and I use the term creature because that person is a god, not a human. The psychopomp is that creature who accompanies the spirit of a human, from the earthly world to the world of the shades, which is Hades. I had already done that in my personal life. Everything is poetry, Jeffrey. Everything is a metaphor. We're much too literal in our existence. I say that because when one understands that everything is poetry, that everything is metaphor, then sometimes it's all of a sudden, sometimes it's slowly—in my life, it's slowly, you might imagine—the meaning of every experience becomes voluminous. It isn't one thing. It's everything. Every experience is a miracle. Every experience is a miracle. 

JM: When you say you've already gone through that in your personal life, are you referring to HIV and losing your partners? 

ADS: Yeah. Well, that's the literal part. But yes, I've had conversations with death. Yeah. And that is what teaches you that, as I said before, time is longer than anything. It's here before you arrive. It's here after you exit. So stop this madness about, "Oh, life is short. Oh, where did the time go? Oh, I'm wasting time. Oh, I'm saving time." You're doing none of that.

JM: Are these conversations with death things that you've had in the past or are they ongoing? 

ADS: Well, obviously they are very specific situations. One of them being the pandemic called AIDS. See this idea of people being frustrated because there's a plague. You think, "Wait a minute. Were you really unconscious during the 70s and the 80s? Do you really not remember that? Do you really not know how to get from one day to the next simply because there's a disease on the horizon?" Well, there's a generation of us who know, we were there. We're not pulling our hairs out of our heads. We're not screaming, "What's going on?" We're getting on with our lives.

JM: You've said you're not a fatalist about HIV today, but were you a fatalist about it in the '80s and '90s? 

ADS: No. I was aware of it. My own partner for 17 years, as he was experiencing the tertiary stages of the disease, asked the unanswerable, yet inevitable question, which is "Why me?" And I said to him, "I don't know, but I won't rest until I find out."

And then — remember everything is poetry, everything is metaphor — I knew I was not going to die from AIDS because I had set a goal that seemed impossible, to find out, "Why you? And not me. Why does one survive and the other succumbs?" My mission now...well, it's an intricate mission, but one of the tributaries of my mission is to break the Methuselah code. Methuselah, who is reported to be the longest-living person in the history of humankind, 969 years.

JM: You want that? 

ADS: You have to want to achieve the impossible in order to even get near, to approach the vicinity of, authenticity.

JM: Before he died, you were with your partner for 17 years. Do you have the desire for another relationship like that? 

ADS: No. Because I learned so much about love, what it is and what it isn't.

I've only had three long-term relationships in my life. Each significant other has predeceased me. Now, in the world of this poetry and metaphor that I have presented to you, my love has killed them. So I'm through with that kind of love.

JM: I think that surprises me because you talk about living on the edge, striving to achieve the impossible. 

ADS: Well, I know what romantic love is. I know what physical love is. I, even for a while, was referring to myself as a sapiosexual—intellectual love, that sort of stuff.

Somewhere along the journey, it reveals itself as a quid pro quo equation. "I love you if you love me." No, I love you. Period. Full stop. There were a few people in my life now that I have that relationship with and it's liberating.

JM: Do you also feel the same way about physical intimacy and sex?

ADS: I can't. You can't possibly feel that way about sex. Sex is about transitory pleasure. Seven seconds. Yeah. That's where an orgasm lasts. Ha! I'm not putting down physical experiences at all. But the physical world is an illusion. We know that.

JM: Are you concerned about being lonely or who will take care of you as you age? 

ADS: Well, I certainly entertain those thoughts. But what concerns me is how to continue the mission of representing BlackManMajesty. And I use that as one word, but I capitalize B, M and M.

Now, man in that sense does not mean penis, it means humanity. Like when we refer to Homo sapiens as mankind, that sort of thing. One of the greatest problems we have in this country is the diminishing of the majesty of Black humanity. Until that is recaptured, revitalized, embraced again, this country can't do anything, but go to hell. I shouldn't say go to hell, because people think I'm wishing that on America. This country can't do anything but not be its best.

Click here to listen to the full interview with André de Shields.

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Alok Vaid-Menon.

New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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