Broadway Deity

As an actor, André De Shields BA1970 tries to make sure that every one of his roles embodies the three Es: entertainment, enlightenment, and ecstasy. “That’s the trinity,” he says. “That’s the divine triangle about why I do what I do.”

Entertainment is what theater is all about — an effort to provide diversion. By enlightenment, he means he wants his performance to affect the audience, to show them ideas in a new way. And with ecstasy, he means to provide a spiritual experience.

“While I am diverting your attention, while I am deflecting your attention, I am preparing the message that I want to deliver,” he says. “There’s a burning question that needs to be answered, there’s a problem that needs to be solved, there’s a crisis that needs to be resolved, there’s a burden that needs to be lifted.”

De Shields was born in Baltimore, the ninth of 11 children in his family, and he says he wanted to be an actor from “the moment I was evicted from my mother’s womb.” He came to the UW in the late 1960s, and he found a social and cultural environment that was bubbling with change. On campus, he connected with Stuart Gordon x’70, who founded the avant-garde Screw Theater.

Gordon cast De Shields as Aaron the Moor in Vis, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus performed in a pit near the Memorial Union. And then Gordon cast him as Tiger Lily in a notorious production of Peter Pan — one that featured a nude scene and ended with Screw banned from campus.

After graduation, De Shields moved to Chicago and then New York, making his Broadway debut in a 1973 production of Warp! which had been written by Gordon. In 1975, he was cast in the title role in The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The hit play won seven Tonys — De Shields’s star began to rise, and he saw the influence that he could have.

“Part of my mission as an actor is to create characters, is to blaze trails, is to open doors,” he says. “But the most significant part of that is once you blaze the trail, you don’t cover it over. Once you open the door, you don’t close it, you leave the door open for the person who is looking for a similar opportunity.”

De Shields went on to create characters in Ain’t Misbehaving, The Full Monty, and, in 2018 Hadestown, a musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in which De Shields played Hermes, the narrator. Hadestown earned De Shields a 2019 Tony Award for best actor in a featured role.

“I knew at the core of my soul that I would one day receive the best that my profession could offer me in terms of legitimacy, and that’s the Tony award,” he says. “Now, I could not say it’s going to happen in 2019. I had no knowledge of that. But I did know that if I would only continue, if I would only persist, it would happen.”

Though he’s achieved an international reputation as one of the leading stage actors of this era, De Shields continues to feel a strong affinity for the UW. “One of the most satisfying fruits of this labor continues to be how my relationship with the University of Wisconsin–Madison evolves,” he says. “I could not have dreamed, in 1970 when I graduated, that we would be talking about my being included in Alumni Park, or any of the many blessings that have had my name and the UW name on it simultaneously. And I investigate Numen Lumen in all of my acting exercises.”