You could romanticize it as a balcony, but really it’s an ornate fire escape, painted creamy beige and stretched across the facade of the Walter Kerr Theater. And if you’d glanced up from West 48th Street early one evening this month, you’d have spied a tableau of considerable glamour and grace: André De Shields, in citrus-striped coat and zebra-striped shoes, posing for the camera with the animate aplomb of a model who just happens to be a dancer.
The lights of the “Hadestown” marquee flashed behind him as he arced his slender arms, or pointed a tapered toe. At 73, Mr. De Shields was style and elegance in motion, like an ultracharismatic emissary from some higher plane. Little wonder he’s up for a Tony Award for playing a god.
“It is my contribution to the revolution: beauty,” he’d been saying earlier in his dressing room, a compact but lushly serene space filled with roses and calla lilies and painted, at his direction, a shade of red called rapture. “I want to be beautiful,” he’d said, in that meticulously cultured voice, “and I don’t want it to be perceived as strange. Beauty is part of living a long, happy life.”
In “Hadestown,” the hit musical by Anaïs Mitchell with 14 Tony nominations, Mr. De Shields plays Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory. He’s the chaperone to the young lovers, Eurydice and Orpheus, on their journey to the Underworld, and the narrator-guide to the audience: a kind of griot, as Mr. De Shields described him, imbued with the history of the world. He gets the first and last lines in the show, and in his discreetly winged silver suit, he never leaves the stage.
As for the revolution, well, Mr. De Shields is a political being. In 1968, at the University of Wisconsin, he played Tiger Lily in a radical production of “Peter Pan” that cast the Native American characters as Black Panthers — making Tiger Lily Huey Newton. The next year, Mr. De Shields made his professional debut in “Hair,” in Chicago.
Since then, he has become what Rachel Chavkin, the “Hadestown” director, called “a creature of both downtown and uptown, mainstream and far out.” On Broadway, he created the title role in the pathbreaking black musical “The Wiz” (1975), starred in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1978 and ’88), and got Tony nominations for “Play On!” (1997) and “The Full Monty” (2000). “Hadestown” coincides with the 50th anniversary of his career.
With its plot about a greedy, wall-building tyrant and the impecunious young artist who resists him, “Hadestown” is political art to Mr. De Shields. He thinks of Hermes in those terms, too.
“Finally there is a place,” he began, then paused for a deep breath, his voice wobbly with emotion, “in the public forum for a man who speaks beautifully, who dresses beautifully, and who uses beauty as a tool for inclusion.”
He could have been talking about himself.
“Fifty years of being a professional artist,” he added, composed again, “and I’ve always played the Other. Always. Which is why it’s so important that Hermes is being embraced by everyone.”
Visions of Hell on Earth
Born in 1946 in Baltimore, Mr. De Shields grew up in a devoutly Christian family, though he doesn’t subscribe to religious ideology or believe in a fire-and-brimstone hell. But earthly hell? He’s seen that in “an inexhaustible number of ways.”
“Hell could be something as complex as a white-supremacist complex,” he said. “Hell could be living a life of denial, which is what many of us have to do if we are not allowed to authentically express who we identify as, as opposed to what the heteronormative identification is.”
He is a fervent advocate of living authentically. For those like him who fall outside the cookie-cutter norm, that “takes courage, it takes perseverance, it takes tenacity, it takes confidence, it takes epic empathy for oneself,” he said. “And that’s where the learning curve begins.”
Possessed of that empathy, Mr. De Shields considers himself the embodiment of the deferred dreams of his mother, who’d yearned to be a chorus girl, but “cleaned houses for other people and cared for other people’s children,” he said, and of his father, who’d wanted to be a singer, but taught himself tailoring.
If Mr. De Shields finally wins a Tony this time, he says he’ll mark his karmic debt to them paid in full.
Already, though, he is firmly established in theater history. That skintight, bell-bottom, extravagantly fabulous white jumpsuit he wore in “The Wiz”? Designed by Geoffrey Holder — a trailblazer “not only for blacks on Broadway,” Mr. De Shields said, “but the beautiful black man” — it’s now in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mr. De Shields said, “obviously because the black artist has been persistent in leveling the playing field, and we’ve been tacticians in terms of making ourselves welcome in a terrain that has been traditionally inhospitable.”
He won’t dwell on thoughts of what shape his career might have taken if he hadn’t had to face bigotry.
“That is the rabbit hole: ‘What if?’” he said. “I don’t go there because there isn’t anything that I can do to change what has come before me. What I do have the power to do is to change what’s on its way.”
He attributes his Broadway return to “the tectonic cultural change” feminists are making, and specifically to Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Chavkin, who brought him along when opportunity opened for them.
“What was I doing for 49 years, before 2019?” he said. “Working with men, who were not trying to effect any tectonic cultural change, who would rather have kept me in my place. Not all of them, but we’re talking about the general trend, and it’s the trend we’re trying to change.”
And in attempting that, he sees himself in benevolent collusion with each 9- or 10-year-old seeing “Hadestown” with their parents.
“That young person is giving me license to make the change in the world that he wants and he needs, she wants and she needs,” he said. “They are empowering me: ‘Mr. Hermes, make it better for me.’”
Stepping Back In
During the development of “Hadestown,” Mr. De Shields played Hermes off and on starting in 2012, but wasn’t part of the 2016 smash Off Broadway production. He stepped back in for last fall’s run at the National Theater in London.
In his dressing room, Mr. De Shields wore a navy track suit brightly striped with orange, and glossy, tangerine, almost futuristic high-tops: the only souvenir he purchased during his months in London. Leaning against the doorway — near a mini-fridge stocked with energy water, and a wooden Buddha with jaunty silver wings plucked from his London costume — was an umbrella matching his ensemble.
Gesturing animatedly, tapping his listener’s knee for emphasis, he was part courtly, part soulful, part New Agey. (The lotus blossoms on the Buddha’s shelf were rhinestone-studded.) He gave no hint, though, of something Ms. Chavkin, 38, and Eva Noblezada, 23, who plays Eurydice, both mentioned: his risqué sense of humor.
“Don’t miss the vulgarity,” Ms. Chavkin said. “He’s very funny. He’s not a prude.”
Mr. De Shields belongs to a generation of men decimated by AIDS, and this is part of the impetus for his work, which he has no intention of giving up. “It makes it even more essential that those of us who, for whatever the rationale is, survived it, continue to ply their art,” he said. “Because we’re the ones who can explain how we got from there to here.”
Soon, after a costume change, he was off to that photo shoot. Afterward, as he cut across the theater, Ms. Noblezada — one of the cast mates he’s closest to — leaned out from stage left, video camera in hand. Filming him as he walked by, she narrated in her best Steve Irwin voice, as if he were a rare creature she’d encountered in its natural habitat.
“I’m at that point with André,” she said later, warmly, that “I don’t need to ask his permission to mess with him. He likes when I mess with him.”
Back in his dressing room, wanting to answer a reporter’s question about his faux-zebra shoes, Mr. De Shields took one off to examine it.
“I’ve got an African proverb that would match the shoe,” he said then, and closed his eyes to remember it precisely. As he began to utter it, he decided to tweak the mention of lions. Instead, he would say animals — “to be inclusive.”
So Mr. De Shields stood, shoe in hand in his rapture-red room, and recited the proverb.
“Until the animals tell their story,” he intoned, “the glory of the hunt will be the tale of the hunter.”
And as far as he’s concerned? This world is overdue for a more expansive sense of glory.