BWW Interviews: One Legend Tackles Another in Arena Stage's KING HEDLEY II

To call André De Shields career legendary would be an understatement.

He starred in the title role of the groundbreaking 1975 musical The Wiz, won an Emmy Award for his role in Ain't Misbehavin' and DC audiences will certainly recognize him from his performances in King Lear at the Folger Theatre and Ghosts at the Shakespeare Theatre. And yet, when he steps onto the stage this week in Arena Stage's revival of August Wilson's King Hedley II, it will mark another in a series of firsts in a remarkable career.

"Well what we have here are a series of firsts with this situation," says De Shields. "This is the first time I'm experiencing and performing in a play by the great August Wilson, first time working with Director Timothy Douglas and the first time I've performed at Arena Stage, one of the high-end non-for-profit theatrical institutions in this country."

King Hedley II is the ninth play in August Wilson's ten-play Century Cycle which chronicles, by decade, the African American experience throughout the United States during the twentieth century. "Because of his canon of work, Wilson is respected as the voice of black American in the twentieth century," says De Shields. "I had known Tim and when he said that he was doing August Wilson, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up."

Wilson's play centers on King Hedley who has just returned after serving a seven-year prison sentence. Despite being given a second chance, King struggles to move beyond his past while attempting to forge a new life. De Shields plays Stool Pigeon, someone who he describes as unlearned, but wise.

"What I'm discovering in the Wilson canon is that all throughout he's writing about ordinary and down to earth people," says De Shields. "There is also this consistent indicator and connection with the spirit world. In King Hedley II, the connection with the spirit world is through Stool Pigeon. He's the one that understands the omens, and signs in the play."

One of the connections De Shields shares with the play is its urban setting in Pittsburgh's African American neighborhood the Hill District. Having grown up in Baltimore, he knows firsthand what it's like to experience a major industrial city in decline.

"Wilson is speaking from a point of view I know very well. I experienced my city [Baltimore] collapsing on many levels: politically, economically and socially. The city gets neglected and there's crime before finally turning around and coming back. We experience that same pathology in every play of the cycle," says De Shields.

He also stresses a connection among cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Wilmington. "All of which share an early history of America and then have fallen on hard times, fought back and experienced a resurrection," says De Shields. "Those are concepts that Wilson uses repeatedly in his plays, and especially in this play - disillusion and resurrection."

Regardless of whether you've seen all or none of the plays in the Century Cycle, De Shields says it's okay to start with King Hedley II because each play is complete unto itself. And while the play maybe set 30 years in the past it continues to remain relevant to contemporary events in the United States.

"Why King Hedley II is relevant is because so much of what is a festering wound in this country is expressed in Wilson's play. You think it would change or be remedied as he writes from the turn of the century to the millennium. But it doesn't. It becomes more dire and more desperate," says De Shields.

In addition to 2015 marking De Shields Arena Stage début it also marks the fortieth anniversary of one of his biggest hits - playing the title role in the original Broadway production of The Wiz. Subtitled "The Super Soul Musical 'Wonderful Wizard of Oz,'" the show won the 1975 Tony Award for Best Musical and was seen as groundbreaking for several reasons.

"It's true that before The Wiz, African Americans were not used to having our culture, heroes, icons and contributions reflected on the Great White Way," says De Shields. "It was only a matter of time before a single production would challenge that and finally say to the African American community, this is about you. That production was The Wiz."

The Wiz closed on Broadway in 1979 and has since been seen in countless tours and regional productions. De Shields credits the show's success for opening the door to more musicals which featured all black casts including his 1978 hit Ain't Misbehavin'.

"One doesn't think of The Wiz as a political musical, but its ramifications were political. It told audiences that if you want to enjoy this you have to put away all your biases and enjoy," says De Shields. "The Wiz was the door that allowed Ain't Misbehavin' and others to exist. Little did I know that I would be a part of two groundbreaking musicals, neither of which has been matched since!"

In recognition of both his work and influence on the American theatre De Shields was awarded the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival Living Legend Award. Pondering both back on his career and ahead to King Hedley II De Shields says, "If you want to understand the history of the United States, then you must look at the 400 year existence of African Americans in this country. That's the prism to best examine this country and Wilson's compendium did just that for the twentieth century."

King Hedley II begins performances on February 6th and runs thru March 8th at Arena Stage 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or click here.

Photo: André De Shields. Credit: Lia Chang.

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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik