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André De Shields: A Debt I Owed My Parents

Updated: Jan 12, 2020

Actor, director, writer, choreographer, and educator

Photo: CBS

by Mark Larson

De Shields was an early member of Chicago's Organic Theater Company. His stage work spans decades, from originating the title role in The Wiz on Broadway in 1975 to playing Hermes in Hadestown at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2018 and on Broadway in 2019, for which he received the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

When I was old enough to have a one-on-one adult conversation with my parents, I learned from my mother that her lifelong dream had been to be a dancer. Although in her youth, the expression would have been “chorus girl.” She wanted to be a chorus girl.

And because of my maternal grandparents, who had lived not too long after the Emancipation Proclamation, they said to my mother that they would not allow their decent, colored daughter to shuffle her way through life. So that was the first set of deferred dreams.

A similar conversation with my father revealed that he had wanted to be a singer, and his parents said to him, essentially, "How can you take care of a family with such an insecure career as a singer?" So there's your second set of deferred dreams. So what do they do with all of that suppressed energy? They had eleven children. And one of us had to have been conceived by those deferred dreams. That's why I call myself “lucky number nine.” From some of my very earliest conscious thoughts, my eyes were on a career in the entertainment industry, yes.

Now it is 1969. That summer, word comes that Tom O’Horgan is coming to Chicago to cast a sit-down company of Hair, which was exploding on Broadway at the time. It had begun at the Public Theater in '67, moved to Broadway in '68 and now was doing a sit-down company in Chicago at the Shubert Theater.

I was all-aflutter about auditioning for Hair, but I didn't have any money. I think a round trip bus ticket at the time might have been $10, maybe $15. There was this group of people who were cheering me on, "Yes, André, go audition for Hair." I said to my group of colleagues, "If you'll put together enough money to buy me the round trip ticket, whoever participates in this will continue to participate in my career in perpetuity."

Three young ladies put some money together, and they're in my life still. I got the ticket, and I went to Chicago. I'm totally green and wet behind the ears. Little did I understand that everyone like me had that same idea, so when I get to Chicago, the line of people who want to audition wraps around the block, and we're given numbers. I didn't get to audition that first time. I had to come back, later. That meant going back to Madison and begging for more money to get another round trip ticket to Chicago.

Now, these were the summers of love. America wasn't a dangerous place, especially towards those of us who were part of spreading the groovy revolution, so I decided instead to sleep in Grand Park overnight so I could be there when my number is called. Long story short, I got to audition, I got a callback, I was asked to be in the show and that, during my last semester, took me away from the campus. I finished my degree with understanding professors on the independent program. That was the beginning of my professional career.

There are certain highlights in my life, in my career, that inform me that this is a debt that I owe to them, to my parents, and that I have indeed paid. As an adult, I understand that I'm the manifestation of their deferred dreams.


Ensemble: Chicago Theater Makers Talk /

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