André De Shields: I'm the slowest moving, living entity on the stage, which mesmerizes people. They wanna know why is this person moving so monstrously slowly? He must know something.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
ADS: Death, Sex & Money. Come on. What else is there?
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more. I'm Anna Sale. André De Shields calls himself a professional charmer. For more than 50 years, he's been performing on stage, including now in Hadestown on Broadway. He's 76 years old and performs eight shows each week.
[MUSIC FROM HADESTOWN André]
Everybody slaves by the sweat of his brow
The wage is nothing and the work is hard
It's a graveyard in Hadestown
Way down in Hadestown
André plays the role of Hermes. He guides the main character through the story. He's often cast in roles like this. He also played the all-powerful title character in The Wiz. And in real life, André has a lot of these same characteristics. He commands the room and is oozing with wisdom, a lot of it gained through experience, as he told me. From a surprising sexual coming-of-age story to losing his partner and his home when he was in his 50s. André was in his studio apartment in Manhattan when we talked over Zoom. The wall behind him was painted a deep red.
ADS: Now, do you know about the color of my wall?
AS: Please tell me about the color of your wall.
ADS: It's called rapture. I wanted you to see me against my aura.
ADS: 'Cause sometimes people look at one another and they don't see beyond the melanin or lack thereof in the individual, but each of us has an aura.
ADS: You can't really see the aura because it's in the UV spectrum, that ultraviolet spectrum. But I'd like to think that when we have this conversation, you're talking to my spirit.
ADS: There it is behind me.
AS: Mm. How long has that wall been painted that color?
AS: Since you moved in?
André lives in a complex called Manhattan Plaza where around 70% of residents are performing artists. It's just blocks away from the Theater District. But when it was built in the 1970s, the area was not yet considered desirable and it sat mostly empty.
ADS: And then The Actors Fund and other organizations that serve those of us in the arts community, saw an opportunity to build a cooperative for individuals who, as I'm sure you know, are princes one day and paupers the next.
ADS: So there had had to be some kind of bell curve on which we could always know that we had a place to live.
AS: And does it-- for-for you how does it work? You said that for people who are princes one day and paupers the next, does your rent move on a sliding scale?
ADS: Yes, exactly.
ADS: You make a lot of money, you pay a lot of rent. You make a little money, you pay a little rent.
AS: Uh-huh. So these days-
AS: -are you feeling, um, resentful of your high rent bill?
ADS: Uh, resentfulness doesn't exist in my life yet, but I'm using that as an indicator that as I have lived for these 20 some-- 22, 25 years in this studio apartment, I now know how to live in a Russian egg.
ADS: Now that's-that's good information to have, how to nestle one thing into the next. Because if you look at my public image you think, "Oh wow, this guy is-- he-he must be living splendiferously. He has a beautiful jacket on." But that's because of the-the crown of celebrity which is very heavy.
ADS: Okay. Let me put that out right now. [laughs] So it indicates to me that it's time for me to move to another level.
AS: Mm. And what's the level? What does that mean concretely for you right now? How are you thinking of that?
ADS: It means, get a larger egg.
André was raised by his mom and dad in Baltimore, along with 10 brothers and sisters. His family gave him a lot of nicknames. One of them was "Professor."
ADS: All right. This was explained to me. So I'm understanding it in retrospect, but as I am conversing with you now, apparently I did that as a nine-year-old.
AS: [laughs] You've always spoken like this.
ADS: Yeah. So, and when I- when I was old enough to have an adult conversation with my mother, I would say, well-well, why did people call me professor? And she would say, "Well, one day I went to the door and there was a shopping bag on the doorstep. And you were in the shopping bag." And I said, "That's your explanation of why I am who I am?" She says, "Yes, 'cause we don't know where you came from."
AS: Did it feel, I mean, you grew up in a large family with many, many siblings.
ADS: Large. Large, yeah.
AS: Did it feel like you were a little different than your pack of siblings?
ADS: Yes. I felt different. I did not feel alien, but I definitely felt different. I also felt fortunate because there were enough adults ahead of me that I could look at the way they were living their lives and learn the lesson quickly. If I don't want B to happen, then don't do A.
AS: The great privilege of being a younger sibling in a big family.
ADS: Exactly. Number nine of eleven. I call myself lucky number nine.
AS: What do you remember noticing and thinking, "Huh? They did that. I'm not gonna emulate that. I wanna do it a little bit differently."?
ADS: No one before me chose education as the beacon in his or her life. What they did choose was to quickly get out of the house, the crowded area. Now, how did the boys do that? By joining the armed forces. How did the girls do that? By marrying early. How did André decide to do it? To get an education.
AS: When you think about when you left Baltimore, did you feel ready to leave?
ADS: I certainly felt existentially ready. Emotionally, I wasn't ready 'cause when I got to my first day of college, I was the loneliest colored boy in the world. Because the first day of college is parents' day. Everyone was there with their mother and father except André. Because there was no money for that to happen. So I wasn't emotionally ready. I wasn't intellectually ready. Growing up in what we then called the ghetto, the slums, the hood, the innermost of the inner cities, I was the sharpest knife in the drawer in school. And my teachers said, "Oh, we need to take care of André. He's going to be one of bright stars. He's gonna go to MIT. He's gonna be a biochemist. He's gonna--" That kind of thing. Now at the same time, I knew I was gonna be a bright star, but I meant in the sense of I'm gonna be Sammy Davis Jr.
AS: Hm. What was it about Sammy Davis Jr. for you as an 18-year-old that was appealing?
ADS: He did everything excellently. He is probably the greatest entertainer in the history of the United States of America. But for reasons like systemic racism et cetera, he did not get his due. Now, later in life, not that I knew him personally, but I did meet him and he dropped a wisdom bomb on me.
AS: Oh, I wanna hear it.
ADS: Not specifically for me, but he dropped it. And I said, "Okay, that's for me." Sammy Davis Jr. said every entertainer, and that's what he was, an entertainer, which if you investigate the entomology of the word, it means to hold until you have delivered the information.
ADS: That's what it means to entertain.
AS: Whoa, hang on.
ADS: Isn't that gorgeous?
ADS: Isn't that gorgeous?
AS: Yes. 'Cause it involves seduction. So you can keep them engaged.
ADS: Seduction, absence of abuse.
ADS: So here's what he said. "Every entertainer signs two contracts, one with his employer, one with his public. You can always get another employer."
ADS: And just as I did just now, my little eyes went "Bing!". I know exactly the wisdom bomb you're dropping on us.
AS: Hm. Was that in person when you heard him say that?
AS: Is that when you met him?
ADS: Yeah, it was in a large social, uh, group. I was on the edges, but that's when you listen hardest.
ADS: Growing up in Baltimore, I was used to being on the edges. I was used to being marginalized to the edges of society, but that's what I didn't allow to defeat me. Now, when I say as a young man, I was the sharpest knife in the drawer. When I went to a predominantly white college preparatory high school, I realized how... inexperienced, I was about to say how dumb, but that would be being cruel to myself, but how unknowledgeable I really was. Because my age-group peers were like "Clap!." They were firecrackers because they were to the manor born. I was not to the manor born.
AS: Did you allow yourself to ask for help at that time in your life? Or did you want to appear like you were keeping up?
ADS: I wanted to appear as if I knew what I was doing. I didn't know how to ask for help. I was stymied. I was stunned into stasis.
ADS: And that's when my ability as a professional charmer came into play.
ADS: Because I can charm my way in or out or around any situation.
ADS: And then learn the appropriate tool later.
AS: Uh-huh. If entertaining is delivering the information, you're using your charm to also consume the information while no one notices. [laughs]
ADS: Exactly. So I entertain. I held the moment until I knew I had whatever was necessary to deliver. And I do it today. I do it in Hadestown.
André doesn't limit the use of his charm to only professional situations. It also has helped him find his way in relationships. Like when he studied abroad in Denmark as a college student. It was the 60s. He wore a beret and thought of himself as a revolutionary and was drawn to socialist Europe. The experience included a homestay, where André got close to his host family... very close.
ADS: The lady of the house, Ruth, had arranged in the basement, a single room for me. Ruth was 18 years my senior. I'm 19.
ADS: Ruth was 18 years my senior.
AS: Entering the prime of her, uh, drive, maybe.
ADS: Entering the prime of her cougar hood.
AS: Uh-huh. [laughs]
ADS: And I'm entering the prime of being young, dumb, and full of cum. Right?
AS: You're both in the prime of your drives. All right. [laughs]
ADS: Right. And we connect.
ADS: In my one room in the basement. Now that may sound salacious, but what our relationship did was opened me to myself and what kind of sensualism and sensory experiences would make me authentic.
ADS: And it was my relationship with Ruth that made me understand that I would prefer to love men, not because Ruth turned me off, but because she said, "You can have whatever you want as long as I am part of what you desire." I'd never heard that in anywhere in the United States of America. In the United States of America, it's binary. You are this or you are that. And she was saying to me, "Be all that you are, but I'm part of it."
ADS: So when I came back to the States from my year abroad, my head was like, "Bow!".
AS: Did you stay in touch with Ruth?
ADS: Until she died, and--
AS: Oh, you did?
ADS: Yeah, yeah.
AS: Did-- so did you ever express to her what it meant for you to have her giving you permission?
ADS: Yes. Uh, part of the gestalt of my being a performing activist is to prepare for the writing of my memoir, and in the rough draft- in the rough draft, there is a section called The Book of Ruth.
ADS: And when I finished the rough draft of The Book of Ruth, I sent it to her, because I wanted her to read it and I wanted her to say, "Don't you dare write that," or, "Oh, please write it." And of course, her response were-- was, "I want the world to know about us."
ADS: Which was her attitude about receiving me. It's the politics of taboo. All her life, she had been told about the treacherous American Negro, right? His prowess and his hunger and his, you know what I'm talking about-
ADS: -et cetera. His inability to, um, resist white flesh.
And then she meets this erudite young man with an afro speaking meticulous English. Well, I can say this because I felt the same thing. She said to herself, "I want a piece of that," because I said to myself, "I want a piece of that."
Coming up, André makes a big move to follow his dream.
ADS: It was time to go and perch myself on the precipice of the abyss which is New York. Because if you can make it there, you can make it, you know the story, anywhere.
Last week, we shared an episode from our 2018 series about class called Opportunity Costs. And this week, we’ve got an update from another person who was in that series: Ramal Johnson.
When we met him, Ramal was a PhD student at Howard University working two jobs, one at Express and one at Best Buy, to keep up with his student loan payments.
Ramal: I was always in survival mode you know not so much, not so much how much I owed but what do I need right now, you know?
After our series came out, Ramal withdrew from Howard and got work as an adjunct professor. But he still dreamed of getting his PhD in communications. And last year, he was accepted at another PhD program at the University of California, San Diego, where he was offered two fellowships with monthly stipends. He recently wrote to us and shared that he’s still getting used to life in San Diego, where Black people make up only 6 percent of the population. “Going days (and sometimes weeks) without seeing another Black person is new,” he wrote.
There’s a longer update from Ramal in our newsletter this week, and if you are not already subscribed, sign up! We share emails from past guests and from listeners, along with audio recommendations from our team. You can get it by going to deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
And between Ramal’s email – and some of our team’s experiences in the past week with school closures and extra Covid precautions – We’ve been talking about the lives of teachers.
If you’re an educator, you know – it has been a slog. Remote learning, a patchwork of rules masks, testing, in-classroom teaching, unions clashing with local governments, and parents. A report from the Rand Corporation last year found that almost 25% of teachers said they were considering leaving their jobs.
So, teachers, we want to hear from you. Send us a voice memo and tell us why you got into education and if you’re thinking about leaving. And what you wish could be different for you at work. Record yourself with your voice memo app and then email us at email@example.com. And thank you for the work you’re doing.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale. André De Shields won a Tony Award in 2019 for his role in Hadestown, but he's long been a part of Broadway history. He originated the role of The Wiz on Broadway in 1975, before he was 30 years old.
[ADS singing in the 1975 cast album of The Wiz] So you wanted to meet the wizard. Let me tell you that you've come to the right place. Should I make you a frog or a lizard?
He got his first professional role in Chicago, right out of college. Soon after, he was in a science fiction play called Warp that was a huge hit in Chicago. So they brought it to New York, where it didn’t have much success and closed after a few weeks.
When the cast and crew packed up to head back to Illinois, Andre decided to stay and try to make it as an actor in New York. It was a struggle at first.
ADS: I don't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but I know I am where I need to be. I'm going to stay here. So I did my quota of couch surfing and staying with friends. And, you know, you take care of my cat and you can sleep on the couch tonight, you know?
ADS:It was brief and telling and educational and butt-kicking.
AS: Do you remember it fondly?
ADS: Oh yes. I do remember it fondly because there were four women whom I knew who were working, who said, "Oh yeah, take care of my cat, you can sleep on that couch," et cetera. They cared for me. Charlotte Crossley, who became one of Bette Midler's Harlettes. Alaina Reed, who ended up on 227 as Rose. Ursuline Kairson, who became [French] Paradis Latin in Paris. And Shezwae Powell who ended up marrying an Englishman in London, having gone there in West End version of Ain't Misbehavin' with me.
AS: Huh. Oh, that's cool.
ADS: Those are the four women who cared after me until I had my legs.
ADS: The thing is this, here's an overused term, existential crisis.
ADS: It's good for you. It's healthy. It means that you can learn from being perched capriciously on the precipice of the abyss, because there's only one thing to do- jump! That's where all the information is. That's where all the enlightenment is. There's no such thing as a bottomless pit, enter the darkness. And if you persist, if you will be determined, if you will be hardy, if you will have sufficient stamina, you will enter the light. You see what I'm wearing on my collar? Can you see that?
AS: I do.
ADS: It's a button cover. It's a yin yang figure. It looks like two spermatozoa. One is white.
AS: [laughs] It's true. It does.
ADS: I didn't design it. In this case one is white, and one is black, but you can do any dichotomy of colors. What this says is the seed of darkness is in light. The seed of light is in darkness.
ADS: You have to learn how to live with your shadow if you are going to live at all. You have to live part of the time, half of the time, actually, with your shadow.
AS: Hmm. We started by talking about your apartment that you moved into in 1997.
AS: What was happening in your life in 1997 that prompted the move?
ADS: Oof. My life partner had recently died and because of the accompanying difficulties, I was evicted from the apartment we shared. I also experienced an inguinal hernia, and it needed to be operated on. And I was offered a gig in London. This was all in the same season. And while I'm in London, I'm evicted.
AS: Where did your belongings go if you were away?
ADS: In a holding warehouse in The Bronx, as far away from where I was living as they could to put them.
ADS: And where, when I came back and wanted to collect them, I was handed the bill for storing it.
AS: And this is about almost 25 years ago. You're a 50-year-old man when all of this is happening-
AS: -nearly 50.
AS: What did you do after you collected your belongings? What did you do next?
ADS: Family in Baltimore, I asked, "May I come home? And they said, "Of course, come home." And this is no exaggeration, no sooner had I made the move to Baltimore and was no longer a resident of New York, I got offered the first show to nominate me for a Tony. And that was called Play On!.
AS: So you--you're in Baltimore when you get the offer?
AS: Were you staying in your childhood home?
ADS: Yep. And it was-- it really was a turnaround.
AS: Do you think of that time as when you were moving through the darkness?
ADS: Dealing with my shadow, being perched capriciously on the precipice of the abyss, the universe putting its boot, its foot in my ass saying, "Come on, enough of this. All right, your partner died. You've got a hernia, et cetera, et cetera. These are all blessings with your name on it. What you gonna do about it? What are you gonna do with it? These are tools to use. The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next. Look up.
Which, curiously, my character gets to say to Orpheus in the play. When he is stuck, he's creating, he's writing a song. That's the metaphor for his life. He's writing a song. And as he realizes each stanza of the song, it becomes a display on the stage. And he's at this point of a blank page. And as I pass him, I say to him, "Look up." He's like this, you know what I mean?
ADS: Staring at the blank page. You know, you hit him on the head, "Look up." And that's how I understand that moment of so many discouraging events in my life.
One of those events was coming to terms with his HIV-positive status. André was clinically diagnosed in 1991, but he had noticed signs of it way before that.
ADS: When we were doing the first national tour of Ain't Misbehavin', we were in Los Angeles, I was living in the Hollywood Hills-
ADS: -you know. And I'm preparing to do a matinee. So I must be clean-shaven as I am now. And in order to shave, you gotta be in the mirror. And I'm in my mirror. And I notice the tiniest protuberance here and I touch it and it's tender to the touch. And I go, "What's this?" So I started investigating my face and it turns out that it's absolutely symmetrical from here down the size of my neck, across my clavicle, under my arms. And I'm going, "What is this?"
The doctor on set told André they would have to remove and biopsy a lymph node, but he refused. The show was on tour. So we saw two other doctors who told him the same thing. One was in New York and one was in Paris.
ADS: By the time I returned from Paris, which is April '81, it's gone. In retrospect, I now understand those were the antibodies showing up in my system, trying to fight this foreign invasion. And once they lost the battle, it was nothing they could do.
AS: So you believe you've been-- you've had the virus that causes AIDS since 1980?
ADS: Oh, definitely. That's definitely what it was. When I got the clinical diagnosis, I had 16 T4 cells when you're supposed to have 2000.
ADS: So, objectively, I wasn't actively dying, but I was dying. That was the first time that I had one of many conversations with death.
ADS: Death comes knocking, invite it in, let's have a cup of tea. "Why are you here?" "Well, don't you wanna take a trip with me?" "No, I don't." "Oh, okay. I'll see you later. Thank you. Bye."
AS: And that's since your mid-forties, you've been having conversations with death?
ADS: Yeah. Well, when my partner died, that was the next conversation with death. My mother died. I only have one sibling now. So, all of those deaths.
AS: Yeah. What's the tone of your conversation with death these days?
ADS: Just what I explained to you.
ADS: "Hello." "Oh, come in. Sit down. I'm just about to have a cup of Japanese ceremonial matcha tea. Will you join me?" But see, that's what death asks me, "Won't you join me?" "No, I'm busy. I got things to do. I'm gonna live until I die. I'm not preparing to die. You want me? Drag me out of here."
That's André De Shields. You can see him on Broadway right now in Hadestown. Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Caitlin Pierce and Anabel Bacon. The rest of our team includes Afi Yellow-Duke, Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Gabriela Santana.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music. I'm on Instagram at @annasalepics. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Thank you to Megan Berry in Denver, Colorado, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Megan and support what we do here, by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
André told me that while his apartment may feel too small these days, there are ways living there still feels expansive.
ADS: You see the light coming in.
ADS: I have three windows that look north. So when I come into my studio apartment, I'm on the 39th floor, I look out the three windows and all of that becomes my abode. All of that becomes my studio. So, I don't freak out. I don't stress out. I don't get frustrated. I don't drop F-bombs.
ADS: I take in the vista and know that there are other horizons for me to explore.
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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