What I learned: André De Shields

In my 52 years as a black performer the most common question casting directors ask me is, “can you sing and dance?” Well, yeah, because I grew up doo-woping under the streetlights in the pouring rain with my brothers, I went to house parties to learn the latest moves. I don’t have any formal training as a singer and dancer, but it’s in my blood.

we were taught if you see something, say something. I believe if you know something, share something.

When I won the Tony, the first thing that came out of my mouth was “Is Baltimore in the house?” It was the first time that I had a captive audience of millions of people; to talk to so many living stage people, I would have to work for hundreds of years. It was my opportunity. And what I said was, “Baltimore, when I left you in 1964, I promised to reach certain heights so that you would be proud to say, ‘He’s a son of the country. ‘ “

Since my very first conscious thought as a young man, I knew I wanted to be an artist. It came from my parents. My mother wanted to dance, but it was not considered a career for a young woman of color born at the turn of the 20th century. Likewise, my father, he wanted to sing, but his parents said, “This is not a responsible way to make a living. So my parents put off their dreams.

“I consider myself lucky number nine, because the dreams my parents carried over have come true because of me.”

I am ninth eleven kids, so I consider myself lucky number nine, because the dreams my parents carried over came true because of me.

You have to live an epiphany. The dream is one thing. The epiphany is the legitimation of the dream. My epiphany was a movie called Cabin in the sky. It featured what were then probably all the world-class black stars: Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Butterfly McQueen. It was the first time I saw my reflection in a movie theater.

If the universe were homogeneous, that would be the most boring experience. It’s like a potluck. You don’t want everyone to bring a salad. You want someone to bring their best fried chicken, someone to bring macaroni and cheese.

There is no one like you, there has never been anyone like you, and there will never be anyone like you.

The climax of my acting career came in 1966. I was the first person in my family to go to college. When I arrived at Wilmington College, a drama teacher said to me, “Are you an actor? I said, “This is what I want to be.” He said, “Good, because I want to lead A raisin in the sun on campus, but there aren’t enough black actors. Long story short, I’m nineteen and he chose me to play Walter Lee Younger.

This interview is part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of black journalists. The oral history series airs on Hearst magazine, newspaper and television websites around June 17, 2021. Go here for the entire portfolio.

Hearst magazines

My parents– who had warned me about becoming an artist, just as their parents had warned them – got on a bus in Baltimore and came to Ohio to see me play for the first time, finally realizing that I had to talent and that there were reasons to encourage me instead of warning me.

Playing Walter Lee Younger was therapeutic. Walter is full of rage just because of the discrimination we talked about. I managed to get this anger, this bitterness, this feeling of disappointment out of my system. It was a kind of healing.

There are two places where people come together for worship and fellowship, to have questions answered, crises resolved, burdens lightened. One is the church; the other is the theater.

The best song sing in the shower? The black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing. It always changes my mood. Even when the mood starts well, it improves. . . . May our rejoicing rise / high like the listening heavens / may it resound loudly like the rolling sea. . . Now is the mood better?

Kenia Mazariegos is a graduate student at the School of Professional Studies at Columbia University. Originally from Washington, DC, she plans to pursue a career in broadcast journalism.

Photograph by Flo Ngala

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