Veteran of such musicals as Hair, The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and The Full Monty, André De Shields is back on Broadway in Impressionism, in the small but crucial part of an African villager who gives photojournalist Jeremy Irons some excellent coffee. Shockingly fit at 63, in a tank top and leopard-print pants, he spoke with Boris Kachka after a rehearsal.
How did you come to get this part?
I was cast because I am simultaneously a child and an adult. I don’t prepare for auditions the way many performers do. I go into the audition process claiming the gig. If I can be a little philosophical here, the universe always says “yes,” no exception.
Your last Broadway play, Prymate—in which you played a gorilla with AIDS—was universally panned. Do you regret that the universe said “yes” to that?
People think it’s hard to get a job as an actor. It is, but harder than that is having the industry change its perception of you. The critical consensus was, “This is the worst play ever written. But André De Shields is a distinctive actor. This is something other than a singer and a dancer.” Well, yay, thank you.
In Impressionism, your character is a naïve but wise African villager. Isn’t that a bit of a colonial stereotype?
Well, of course, because that’s all we’ve got. That’s why we are so morally bankrupt now, because we thought we were dealing with an immutable universal truth when all we were dealing with was a cultural and political trend that lasted maybe 2,000 years. And now that we’re at the end of it, we’re like, What are we going to do? We are so frightened of enlightenment. Do you think it’s just serendipitous that Hair is being revived on Broadway 40 years after we sang [sings a bit from “Aquarius”]? People haven’t gotten the message yet.
You have a pretty abstract way of approaching things.
Yes, but it took 40 years to get there. As a young dreamer, I thought, There’s nothing better than theater as a way of life. But theater as a way of life is finite, result-oriented. If I may demonstrate. [Stands up, repeatedly bangs head against the wall.] There’s something wrong with this picture. Then it occurred to me: Theater as a way to life becomes infinite. You’re not result-oriented. That’s why I approach it, as you say, from a much more abstract paradigm.
Why haven’t you done more film work? Was that a choice?
The metaphysical point of view is everything is a choice. I’m not ready to give up my heat, and film is a cold medium. And what I do would be laughably over-the-top in film. But when the time is right, Hollywood will grow and André will shrink and we’ll fit. I’m nowhere near hitting my stride.