André DeShields discusses his career, numerous awards and the arts scene

The Sarah Siddons Society honored Tony Award winner and multi-nominated Tony André DeShields with the organization’s 66th annual “Best Actor of the Year” award held late last month in Chicago.

The 2021 feature included an interview between the DeShields and Chicago Midwest Emmy-Award awarded Ed Tracy, congratulatory messages from influential individuals in his life, and musical selections from his many memorable performances performed by some of Chicago’s most talented rising stars under David Fiorello’s musical direction and recipient induction. Sarah Siddons Society Scholarship 2021. This event was produced by longtime Chicago board member and producer Dennis McGowan Tracy.

The event was filmed at The Edge Theater and will be broadcast on November 28. For more information, visit: www.sarahsiddonssociety.org.

The association spoke about the importance of this award. “We feel it is especially helpful that the award for Chicago’s oldest and most famous theater will go to a worthy and accomplished actor like Andre de Shields in the city who has made his professional debut and performed with many legendary theater companies over the course of the year,” said Martin Balogh, President of the Sarah Sidons Society.

At the age of 75, the DeShields was a three-time winner of the 2019 awards season, receiving the Tony Awards, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and Grammy for his globally acclaimed role as Messenger to the Gods, Hermes, in ” Hadestown”. In an unparalleled career spanning more than half a century, DeShields has distinguished himself as an actor, director, philanthropist, and teacher. His distinguished theatrical performances include roles in the original Broadway production of “The Full Monty” (Tony Award nomination), “Play On!” (Tony Award Nomination), “Ain’t Misbehavin” (Emmy Award) and Honorary Role in “The Wiz”.

Jayden Nelson, grant recipient, and Andre Deschilds.

I was able to ask DeShields a few questions about his amazing career and especially this honor. “Receiving the Sarah Seddons Award resonates differently than many other awards she has received in that the honor is not tainted by any competing instrument, and thus rejected any excessive ego appeal,” he said. “Instead, the focus is on the service the Society provides to young people in the nascent stage of their careers and/or promising theater students whose travels may benefit from scholarship assistance. Furthermore, the focus of the Society’s mission is the Chicago Center.”

Over 50 years ago, DeShields career began when he starred at the Shubert Theater in a Chicago production of “Hair.” He’s been back in town a few times and he says this return makes the circle fuller. “Since then, I have frequently returned to Chicago for reasons of work, residence, direction, and acclaim, and in the process have accumulated three Jeff Awards. Therefore, ‘Circle’ i.e. time, that is history, that is a legacy and this is my relationship with Chicago becomes more complete with each visit. ‘The Circle’ is growing wider, more diverse, holistic, and healing.”

The veteran actor, who is also a charter member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, didn’t set out for a memorable performance, but preferred to keep things here and now. “The most outstanding performance is always evaluated in the present tense. This is the basic rule of the creative process: live in the moment. This means that the character of Hermes in ‘Hadestown’ is currently the most memorable performance.

“Not only because Hermes is in part an amalgamation of elements from all the roles that preceded him, but also because Hermes possesses a literacy, intellectual acumen, and sense of humor that can only be achieved through the difficult entertainment of trying to discern the complex and contradictory life of an enigma of fate.” He said that such circumstances do not exist, for example, in “The Wiz”, “Ain’t Misbehavin” and other notable plays in which he starred.

Andre Deschilds with Allen Gilmore and Dennis Zaczyk, right, poses for a photo after the Sarah Seddons Society tribute to the leading actor.

And DeShields is now in a position to further help others in the arts world by creating a fund that supports art projects created, executed, designed or produced by BIPOC and other people who have been historically underrepresented on stage and in audiences.

In late September, my university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Elizabeth Snodgrass, director of the Wisconsin Union Theater, and members of the Wisconsin Union and Wisconsin Union Theater announced the creation of a new initiative: the André DeShields Fund, which led to the first award of the André De Shields H’20 Scholarship. Presented at Boston Conservatory in Berklee to Jayden Nelson BFA ’25.”

Nelson would benefit from great guidance, and DeShields gives advice to others. “The most important piece of advice I can give these individuals at the beginning of their theatrical journey is the wisdom bomb I delivered during my Tony Award acceptance speech in 2019.” The ground rules are: Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be. The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”

Finally, I asked DeShields about his iconic role as Mr. Wiz in 1974 and about the 1975 Broadway production of “The Wiz” and the lack of blacks on Broadway at the time. “During an era when Broadway was largely dismissive of both black art and black artists, the Great White Way was exactly that, a bastion of capitalism with little or no concern for promoting diversity, equality, and inclusion. The production was promoted as a musical of soul. Herein lies the crux of the show’s success.” ‘The Wiz’ has been a challenge to the white-dominated spirit of Broadway thus far.

“I created Mr. Weiss as a vivid, rich, choreographed, and political statement that black was not only beautiful, but essential to the progression of American artistic expression. Dressed in peacock fashion in the 1970s, Mr. Weiss wore a glowing white jumpsuit, tight in leather, with a bell-bottomed cloak and a bulging cloak that suggested strength and nobility. From his sky-high Afro to his 5-inch platform shoes, Mr. Weiss was a symbol of high self-esteem, recalling the words of the Godfather of the Soul, ‘Say it Out Loud. I’m black and I’m proud! “

He added that this was a game changer for the commercial scene in the 1970s and that he was still enthusiastic when performing his signature song. “Before The Wiz, black Americans did not have the reputation of theater goers. Moreover, commercial theater seemed actively inhospitable to the production of entertainment that would reflect and encourage the development of the black audience. Without raising a fist or protesting in the streets, “The Wiz” brought about He revolutionized commercial theater simply by allowing a young black woman “Dorothy” (Stephanie Mills) to speak the universally accepted wisdom to children around the world, “When I think of home, I think of a place where love is overflowing.”

I salute DeShields and his groundbreaking career, which has left an indelible mark on the arts world, and look forward to his future work.

Since its inception in 1952, the Sarah Siddons Society’s mission has been to fund scholarships for promising performing arts students at the top Chicago area universities including the Department of Theater, Columbia College. Theater School at DePaul University; Roosevelt University’s Chicago School of Performing Arts and Northwestern University’s School of Communications.

Talent songs by Andre Deschilds during the concert.

Learn more about André DeShields at www.andredeshields.com.

Eileen H. Bowen

Elaine Highwood Bowen, MSJ, is the entertainment editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a recipient of the National Association of Newspaper Publishers’ “Entertainment Writing” Award, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” for information, Old School Adventures of Englewood – South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].

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