For most people, 74 years of age is a good time to take it easy and relax a little. For dancer, singer, actor, director, choreographer, and Tony Award-winning entertainment legend André De Shields, it’s just middle age.
From choreographing Bette Midler's concerts and starring in The Wiz in the '70s to singing “Algebra Song!” in Netflix’s new off-the-wall children’s show John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, De Shields has done it all — and the out gay personality is going strong with no end in sight.
The fact that De Shields has been living with HIV for the last three decades has not slowed him down one bit.
“That’s what you have to understand about HIV,” he told The Body in a recent interview. “You can’t be fatalistic about it.”
De Shields is no stranger to the devastation of HIV. His life partnership with playwright and mentor Chico Kasinoir lasted 17 years before Kasinoir died from AIDS-related lymphoma. Another partner died in 1995. De Shields himself has been living with HIV for over 30 years now, and he shows no symptoms or affects. He’s just your average 74-year-old youngster doing eight Broadway shows a week, and generally making his presence felt in other projects as well.
He called his autobiographical stage show Confessions of a P.I.M.P. For De Shields, P.I.M.P. stands for "positive individual making progress." And that pretty much sums up his approach to life. For De Shields, life is not as much about the destination as it is about appreciating and making the most of the ride getting there, and says he wasn’t about to let the ever-reaching tentacles of racism and racial stereotyping stand in his way. Whether it was the early out bar scene or dealing with entrenched Broadway beliefs and practices, De Shields was going to shine as brightly as he could.
“Broadway has come around to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it’s come around after we dragged them screaming and kicking,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview.
His resume is the stuff of legend. His Broadway debut came in 1973 in Warp! which was followed by performances in such hits as The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Play On!. He originated the role of Noah “Horse” T. Simmons in the musical adaptation of The Fully Monty. His film and television credits include Law & Order, Another World, Sex and the City, and many more.
He is currently appearing as Hermes in Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown at the Walter Kerr Theatre, in which his performance earned him a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor. The show itself won in eight categories and De Shields had previously been nominated for Play On! and The Fully Monty.
Younger audiences or those not familiar with his stage work will recognize him as the math tutor wearing a sequined red suit and black eye patch who sings and dances his way through a song about how algebra caused the loss of his eye in the Netflix special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch. The song is intentionally silly, and the long-awaited revelation about how he lost the eye is perfectly in sync with the off-the-wall vibe of the show. And, of course, De Shields is fantastic singing and dancing and explaining his way through the increasingly inane segment.
Today, De Shields sees no reason to slow down. Death may be inevitable for us all, but he says sees himself as barely getting started. His goal now is to break the “Methuselah Code” and live past the 969 years of the biblical character. Otherwise, he’s shooting for at least another 74 years.