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Interview with Andre de Shields

The Bacchae

By Beth Herstein

Andre De Shields and the chorus in The Public Theater's production of The Bacchae
When Andre de Shields gave the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, in 2007, he described himself as both "a reformed humanist" and "an unreconstructed hippie." This description is not altogether accurate; he is an unreconstructed hippie but a humanist proudly unreformed. A man whose thoughts are never far from the plight of his fellow human beings, the planet and the cosmos. Someone who thinks outside of the box every time he's thrown a question.

Though he's a nonlinear thinker, Andre de Shields' career has enjoyed a straightforward upward trajectory. De Shields, who also has a master's degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, earned his Equity card playing Hud in the Chicago production of Hair in 1969 when he was still in his early twenties. He got work quickly upon his arrival in New York, including parts in some short-lived Broadway shows, but his career really took off when he played the title role in 1975's smash hit The Wiz. He went on to appear in a number of successful musicals, including 1978's Ain't Misbehavin', for which he received a Drama Desk nomination; the 1988 revival of the same show; and Tony-nominated turns in Play On in 1997 and The Full Monty in 2000. Off-Broadway, he is a frequent collaborator with the esteemed Classical Theater of Harlem, most recently in Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe earlier this summer. He has also choreographed, written and directed shows, and he has taught at the Gallatin School and elsewhere. For his numerous and varied contributions to the profession, the National Black Theater Festival presented de Shields with a Living Legend Award on August 3 of this year.

Currently, the versatile actor is in previews of Euripides' The Bacchae in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, the second show in the Public Theater's 2009 Shakespeare in the Park series. The production marks the return of former artistic director Joanne Akalaitis to the Public, features original music by the legendary Philip Glass, and stars two rising young actors, Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie. The play is set in ancient Thebes, where Dionysus (Groff), or Bacchus, returns to lay claim to his heritage—his mother, Semele, was their princess, and his father was the god Zeus. When the Thebans, led by their young king Pentheus (Mackie), refuse to acknowledge him as a god, Dionysus transforms the women of Thebes into bacchants, who head into the mountains to worship him through revelry. Before the play is over, the sinister nature of Dionysus' plan is revealed, as the god wreaks a horrible and brutal vengeance on his detractors and in particular on the royal family. De Shields plays Tiresias, the blind seer who tries to warn Pentheus of the dangers that lie ahead.

Between tech rehearsals, de Shields talked to me by phone about the show. Based on the interviews I'd read, I anticipated an unconventional question and answer session. The warm, engaging and intelligent actor didn't disappoint me in the least.

Beth Herstein:  What first drew you to the theater?

Andre de Shields:  My mother and father both had dreams of becoming performers. Their dreams were deferred. What did they do with that energy? They had 11 children. One of us had to have been blessed with the responsibility of realizing the deferred dreams of our parents. I consider myself Lucky Number 9. Even before I could form a complete sentence, I had the idea of performing. I knew that somewhere in my adult life I was going to live out my destiny on the stage. I think that destiny was hatched in the chromosomes. "Andre, this is what you're going to do."

BH:  Your sense of that destiny comes across in the interviews I've read with you. You also have mentioned that from the start, you entered auditions as if the parts were yours to win.

AS:  Certainly it's a part of surrendering to one's destiny, which is not unlike Greek tragedy. All conflict in Greek tragedy asks, Will the protagonist receive his destiny or will he resist it? When the protagonist resists his destiny, that's when we go along for the ride and wait to see how the conflict is going to be resolved, and experience the catharsis we come to the theater looking for. The flip side of that is, Will the protagonist surrender to his destiny? If that happens, how does this destiny play out in terms of what the gods have predetermined?

BH:  Who do you think the protagonist is in The Bacchae? More than one character would try to claim that title.

AS:  Here's my perspective. There are several major characters in The Bacchae. One major character is the Chorus. The Chorus is the spine of the play, and the voice of the Chorus is the voice of the experience of the play. If I have my research correct, it is the only time in the canon of Greek tragic literature that calls for a gender-specific chorus of biological women. That gives the character of the Chorus even more significance.

But who is the protagonist of the play? Who is the hero of the play? About whom is this play? Humanity. Mankind, if you will. The conflict here is between humanity and its craving for logic—mankind and its rational mind —and the totally irrational dispositions of gods. Gods are capricious, arbitrary. They are like impetuous petulant children. I want what I want and I want it now. And it matters not how it affects human beings. Either you obey my whim or you will be ruined or literally torn limb from limb. This is what happens in The Bacchae. So it seems the lesson that is being taught here is, Make your peace with the gods and then perhaps you have an opportunity to make peace with yourself.

BH:  Pentheus and Bacchus are equally rigid, and their failure to find a common ground or make peace with one another causes the tragedy. They both want the same things.

AS:  But go about it in totally different ways. And the loser is always humanity. We have come to believe that the human condition is suffering, is sorrow, and this is very much underscored in Nicholas Rudall's translation. We had the opportunity of working with him during the first week of rehearsals. I picked up several pearls of wisdom from him before he returned to Chicago. One of them, which continues to haunt and inspire me as I go about inhabiting the blind prophet Tiresias, is that The Bacchae was written before we had a sense of the universe. That might sound trivial or frivolous, but consider this. When Euripides was writing the play, the earth was of paramount importance. We knew that we were the center of the firmament. When the godhead called Dionysus comes to Greece from the east, from where the sun rises, it forces us to think that there must be more to the world than what we know. That's the beginning of the evolution of man's intellect and of social progress, because you have to start thinking that we are not alone, we are not the entire world. Now, of course, all these centuries later, we know that we are not the center of things.

BH:  That reminds me of what Lucretius says in "On the Nature of Things." The gods exist, but they are not focused on what happens to humans.

AS:  Right, aren't they busy with other things?

BH:  I want to ask you about the part you are working to inhabit, the blind prophet Tiresias. In mythology and literature in general, the gift of a seer often is coupled with blindness or madness. Milton wrote about his blindness in Book III of "Paradise Lost":

So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

Can you respond to this and give some insight into how you are conceptualizing your part?

AS:  Certainly, Milton has a better way with poetry than I. Yet, when we talk about sight and we limit it to the two eyes in our head, we are talking about something that is finite. A prophet, a seer, an oracle, must be blind. His intuition, his inner sight, is how he perceives the world around him.

Tiresias is an archetypal example of the blind oracle. He is a man who sees best because he sees nothing. A man whose light is interior. That is exactly what the term "enlightenment" means, that you are seeing from the eye that is invisible. We point to it by putting our finger between our eyebrows, but there is no eye right there. The eye that we are talking about is our interior perspective. It's a divine point of view. The information that Tiresias is asked to impart to humanity is divinely inspired, and the passion that Tiresias [expresses] is meant to appeal to that which is divine in humanity. Otherwise, there is no conversation. Flesh has no idea of the meaning of spirit, and spirit has no interest in flesh. So the medium has to be someone or something that can transcend them both.

Although this isn't touched on in The Bacchae per se, Tiresias lived for seven years as a woman. It was a kind of school, if you will, a preparation to becoming a prophet. This has nothing to do with what we call gender today. But when you live seven years as a woman, you luxuriate in what you call the feminine mystique or the yin of the universe. Then when you live as a man, you luxuriate in the masculine mystique, the yang of the universe. The seed of each is in the other. Only after that can you then encompass the one. Otherwise, the curse is the duality that man suffers on a daily basis. Life is a constant search to return to the one. You can't do it if you identify with only the half of the one.

So, yes, Milton hit the nail right on the head. I see best when I see from inner vision.

BH:  It took the pain of losing his vision to enable Milton to reach that conclusion.

AS:  That [also] is the lesson of Greek tragedy. The only way you can appreciate the universe is through tremendous grief. Otherwise, you are in a half light, a shadow world. You must suffer in order to understand creation.

BH:  There certainly is a lot of suffering in this show. When the audience saw The Bacchae originally, they had the benefit of dramatic irony. Pretty much everyone knew how things would end. Today, you'll be performing for an audience where some people will be familiar with the story and others will not. How does that impact on the approach, if at all, to the show?

AS:  First of all, the purpose of going to the theater has not changed. The reason for going is to be in the presence of the gods. Of course, we go to the theater for entertainment as well, and that's OK. It's more than OK. But the primal reason to go to the theater is the same as the reason we go to the church or the temple—to have a problem solved, a crisis resolved, a burden lifted, a yoke broken. To feel big emotions, pathos, empathy and joy. Something larger than what we carry around in our daily lives. So, although some members of the audience at the Delacorte Theater will not be familiar with the story, there is not going to be any individual who won't be familiar with [that basic] experience or the reason for coming together in a darkened theater with strangers.

BH:  You were in the Chicago production of Hair in 1969. You spoke recently in Playbill about how you and others from earlier productions have passed the mantle to the current cast. Similarly, your commencement address at the University of Wisconsin was full of hope and inspiration for the future.

AS:  Absolutely. Forty years ago we sang, [sings,] "When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, and peace will guide our planet, and love will steer the stars. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius." The operative word there is "dawning." Here we are, forty years later, and we are on the threshold of the Age of Aquarius. Just as in most inspired scripture, the meaning of the scripture isn't intended for the people who speak it. It's for another generation to understand it and to put it into practice. Now that we are in the twenty-first century, the third millennium, it is for the grandchildren of the people who sang those words forty years ago to put into practice our theory. And that is exactly what is happening, and that is why Hair is on Broadway in Manhattan. These are the people who understand the message and can receive and carry the mantle. These are the people who can best deal with the changing of the age. Because the age is changing.

BH:  You're currently working with some members of that same generation in The Bacchae. Jonathan Groff, who is Dionysus in The Bacchae, played Claude in the Central Park production of Hair at the Delacorte Theater last summer. Anthony Mackie is another talented and charismatic young actor. In addition, there is a great cast and creative team in general. What has the experience been like so far?

AS:  It's been very exciting to work with people who understand the importance of ensemble work. I've only worked with one person in the ensemble previous to this experience and that's very unusual. It's also a lovely experience not to have the weight of the play on my shoulders, and then to watch these two young turks, Jonathan Groff and Anthony Mackie, become important. I'm not talking about vanity, but the greater the challenge you take on the better craftsman you become. It's happening with them on a daily basis and I am there to witness it. It inspires me also. It doesn't detract from any individual's uniqueness. As a matter of fact, it adds to the total gumbo of the experience.

BH:  You've expressed that same attitude in other interviews you've done. You don't seem to feel proprietary about the parts which made your name. Instead, you seem happy to pass along, or share, the mantle. You've embraced the new cast of Hair, and you also visited and supported the cast of the recent Encores production of The Wiz.

AS:  If we're not generous, if we're not magnanimous, we are cheating ourselves. We are stealing from ourselves. We're short circuiting our own magic. I firmly believe that the fuel of the universe is gratitude. That's how we continue to recreate ourselves—by not only being grateful but by supporting gratitude. And you do that by supporting the efforts of your brothers and sisters.

The Bacchae, by Euriphides, part of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park summer season at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. In previews, opening August 24 and running through August 30.

Photo: Joan Marcus

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