BWW SPECIAL FEATURE: How I Got My Equity Card - By Andre De Shields
BroadwayWorld.com is proud to present its weekly feature, presented in association with and to celebrate the importance of the Actors' Equity Association. "AEA" or "Equity", founded in 1913, is the labor union that represents more than 48,000 Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. Equity seeks to advance, promote and foster the art of live theatre as an essential component of our society. Equity negotiates wages and working conditions and provides a wide range of benefits, including health and pension plans, for its members.
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"It was 1969 - the final Summer of Love. I was a dyed-in-the-paisley hippie: sandals on my feet, elephant bell bottoms hugging low on my hips, love beads strung around my neck and flowers in my Jimi Hendrix size Afro. While completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), I learned that Tom O'Horgan was holding auditions for the Chicago production of HAIR, America's first and only Tribal Love Rock Musical. I had to be there or be square, but how? Money was scarce. So, in order to raise round trip bus fare, I sold points in my future career to a few believing friends. Well, I made it to the auditions thinking that I would be told right then and there whether I had made the cut. Imagine my surprise when, after discovering that I was number 426, I was told to return the next day. The little money I had raised did not include funds for an overnight stay in the Windy City. I slept in Grant Park; used the facilities in the Shubert Theatre to freshen up; sang Wilson Picket's "Midnight Hour;" did something "sensitive" when asked to demonstrate movement and, in September, opened in Ragni and Rado's legendary musical as a member of the Potawatamie Tribe. The rest, as they say, is history."
ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS has garnered tremendous critical acclaim as an actor, director and educator. He received the 2001 Tony, Drama Desk and Astaire Award nominations and won the Outer Critics' Circle Award for his performance as Noah "Horse" T. Simmons in THE FULL MONTY, a role he originated at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and recreated both on Broadway and London's West End. He created the role of Bill and provided "additional material" for the world premiere of LET ME SING at the George Street Playhouse and Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Mr. De Shields recently performed AMBASSADOR SATCH: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF Louis Armstrong (co-written with James P. Mirrione) for limited engagements at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia and the Helen Hayes Playhouse in Nyack, New York. He is presently performing in Ibsen's GHOST (starring Jane Alexander) at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.
In 1998, Mr. De Shields received both Chicago's Black Theatre Alliance and Joseph Jefferson Awards for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Jester in the Goodman Theatre production of PLAY ON!, the Broadway musical which earned him the 1997 Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations in the category of Featured Actor. In April, 2001 he was honored with his very own portrait in the gallery of caricatures at world famous Sardi's Restaurant on Broadway.
Mr. De Shields won an Emmy Award for his performance in the NBC television special presentation of AIN'T MISBEHAVIN', the role he created in the Fats Waller musical at the Manhattan Theatre Club and on Broadway, including the 1988 revival. However, he is probably best known for having created the title role in the Broadway musical THE WIZ in 1975. Eighteen years later, sharing billing with Stephanie Mills, Mr. De Shields recreated the role of Mr. Wiz for the 1992 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. His other Broadway credits include HAARLEM NOCTURNE and STARDUST.
Mr. De Shields began his professional career in the Chicago production of HAIR which led to a role in THE ME NOBODY KNOWS and membership in Chicago's Organic Theatre Company, where he created the role of Xander, the Unconquerable in WARP. He debuted on Broadway in WARP and has since starred in such shows as JAZZBO BROWN, JUST SO, L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT at Carnegie Hall, THE SOVEREIGN STATE OF BOOGEDY BOOGEDY and THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE (at Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre). He portrayed the Griot in the Working Theatre's production of Michael Henry Brown's ASCENSION DAY.
On the concert stage Mr. De Shields performs MOOD ELLINGTON, an original one-man tribute to The Duke, directed and choreographed by Mercedes Ellington. Other concert stage performances include two productions with William Bolcom: as J.J. Fergesen in the cabaret opera CASINO PARADISE, and as the Rock Singer in SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE (the St. Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall and the BBC Symphony at Royal FestivAl Hall, London). He has toured with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as Narrator for Wynton Marsalis' A FIDDLER'S TALE and, in 1999, he served as narrator with The Peabody Trio for Aaron Jay Kernis' LE QUATTRO STAGLIONI DALLA CUCINA FUTORISMO (The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine). He has performed as Narrator of Igor Stravinsky's L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT at Carnegie Hall and with the Chamber Music Societies of Lincoln Center, Bridgehampton, NY and Portland, Oregon.
Mr. De Shields was featured in the film Extreme Measures with Hugh Grant and made his film debut in 1988 as Sandor in the Empire pictures release Prison. His television credits include the NBC movie-of-the-week I Dream of Jeannie - 15 Years Later as Haji, King of the Genies; two PBS Great Performances: Alice In Wonderland (Tweedledum) and Ellington - The Music Lives On, Another World and Law and Order.
As an educator, Mr. De Shields is Adjunct Professor of Shakespeare at New York University in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He was the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./Rosa Parks/Cesar Chavez Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he directed a multi-ethnic, pan-historical production of Euripides' Trojan Women. He was the Algur H. Meadows Distinguished Visiting Professor of Theatre in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, where he directed A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THREEPENNY OPERA and a workshop production of SAINT TOUS, a dramatic musical inspired by the life of Haiti's revolutionary hero, Toussaint L'Ouverture.
Mr. De Shields opened the 1999-2000 season at Crossroads Theatre Company (New Brunswick, NJ) directing Leslie Uggams and Stephanie Mills in the Duke Ellington musical PLAY ON! In 1994-95, he remounted his Joseph Jefferson Award-winning production of George C. Wolfe's THE COLORED MUSEUM at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre. Other honors include two AUDELCO Awards for both directing and co-choreographing the Amas Repertory Theatre's production of BLACKBERRIES.
During the 1992-93 season, Mr. De Shields served as director of Carnegie Hall's Jazzed - an educational strategy for restoring the arts to the public schools. He directed The Fifth Dimension in the Hirshfeld Theatre Production of AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' in Miami, Florida. He has also directed at the Denver Center Theatre, the Cortland Repertory Theatre and La Mama, E.T.C.
Mr. De Shields' additional theatre roles include Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, the title role in Lonnie Carter's THE GULLIVER TRILOGY at La MaMa E.T.C.; the title role in Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR at the Horace Mann Theatre, Columbia University in New York; and principal roles in LOVE, LANGSTON at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, DANCING ON MOONLIGHT at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and ANGEL LEVINE at the Jewish Repertory Theatre, New York. He is a founding member and Artistic Associate of the Oasis Theatre Company in residence at Buffalo State College, Buffalo, New York. Oasis had its debut season in the summer of 1996, during which Mr. De Shields won critical acclaim as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN and as the storyteller Kalidasa in the world premiere of Vincent J. Cardinal's KING DUSYANTA: A TALE FROM KALISDANA, Neil Simon's THE GOOD DOCTOR (New York's Melting Pot Theatre Company), the role of Scott Joplin in Mark Saltzman's THE TIN PAN ALLEY RAG at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, and SheriDan Whiteside in Kaufman and Hart's THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER at the Madison Repertory Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin.
Active in Actors' Equity Association, the labor union that represents stage performers, for five years, Mr. De Shields held a Principal Performer seat on Equity's national Council; was a member of the Council's Eastern Regional Board and served as Chair of the union's Committee for Racial Equality.
A triple Capricorn and the ninth of eleven children born and reared in Baltimore, Maryland, Mr. De Shields received his B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which honored him with "2001 The Person of the Year Award" from its New York Chapter of the Alumni Association; his M.A. in African-American studies from New York University (Gallatin School of Individualized Study receiving its 1992 Distinguished Alumni Award) where he also serves as adjunct professor. In May, 2003 he was honored with the NYU Alumni Association's Alumni Meritorious Service Award.