The full Andre – actor Andre De Shields discusses participation in the musical The Full Monty – Interview
Is The Full Montya political play? According to showstopper Andre De Shields, the musical has vital lessons for both gay people and blacks
“Out of my mother’s womb, I knew I was going to be some kind of performer,” says Andre De Shields, who stops the show every night with his rendition of a little tune called “Big Black Man” in the mega-hit Broadway musical The Full Monty. “I was infused with the tenacity, the ambition, the sense of long suffering, the sensibilities, and the proclivity toward a monastic life, which is what it takes to last in this industry.”
De Shields’s electric performance as the misleadingly nicknamed Noah “Horse” T. Simmons–a sort of cross between James Brown-funked showbiz savvy and every wise mentor Morgan Freeman has ever played–has critics and fans anticipating a Tony nomination. It would be his second, having earned a nod in 1997 for the Duke Ellington revue Play On!
“I devilishly enjoy playing this character,” says De Shields with a glint in his eye, “because in the history of the black man in America, we’ve either been superhuman or subhuman, and all through this spectrum we’ve always had this incredible sexual prowess. This character sticks a pin in that balloon, to the absolute glee of the audience. You can feel the release in the air. And Horse says, `Thank you, Lord, for taking this burden off of me and giving it to that poor white boy.'” The “white boy” is the awesomely endowed character of Ethan, played by the cast’s other openly gay lead actor, Romain Fruge.
For De Shields, The Full Monty is political as well as entertaining. “I don’t care how many inroads feminism has made and how many civil rights we’ve been able to legislate for minorities,” he says emphatically. “This is a patriarchal society in a world run by white, Eurocentric men. What is so thrilling, not just for the largely female audiences we have but for every member of the audience, is that The Full Monty is the first time in a deliberate, concentrated art form that white men are objectified as sex objects, and it’s the women who come in and scream and cheer and squeal, `Take it off!'”
De Shields seems taller than his 5 feet 9 inches–he describes himself as a “delicious 170 pounds of lean muscle”–and he has packed a lot of life experience into his 54 years. He grew up near Baltimore, the ninth of 11 children, “with no stuff, nothing material,” he recalls. “I was happy. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I realized we were poor. I came from a different time, from a family where sacrifice was joyful.”
Although best known for his musical roles–including the title character in The Wiz (1975) and a lead in the original Broadway cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978)–De Shields has also played leading roles in Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot. These days he also brings his intense, thoughtful presence to New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he’s an adjunct professor. “I am one of the students,” he says of his university teaching. “We are on this journey together, and we enlighten one another.”
The success of The Full Monty has led De Shields to reread Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, he says, because “with all the attention the show is getting and I’m getting, I mustn’t forget I’m still a stranger in a strange land. I’m not bitter, and I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I know that it’s a game, and I know how to play the game.”
The game of the celebrity interview De Shields is also hip to. A question about his experience as a black gay man evokes a careful, deliberate response: “I don’t know if I have time for all this. I’m a black man. We’ve just hit the 21st century. It’s still not cool to be gay and black on a social level. Do I have sex with men? Yes. And I love it. Gay is a political construct, meant for white males who can, when they choose to, assimilate into that patriarchy. In my life, I know that even in the gay community, I’m still a nigger.”
De Shields is equally outspoken on the subject of the black community. With his own enthusiasms diverse enough to include the music of Chaka Khan and Nina Simone and the writings of theologian Thomas Merton, De Shields resents what he calls “cultural illiteracy on the part of a nation of African-Americans,” including a failure to support Broadway theater. “We shuffled our way off of the plantation,” he says. “And the Andre De Shieldses of the world are refining or honing that shuffle into a very noble art, which needs to be recognized by our own kin. Why doesn’t Oprah Winfrey produce in the theater?”
While that’s waiting to happen, Andre’s doing his job.
Longtime HIV activist Velez has written many CD liner notes.
For The Advocates past coverage of The Full Monty and links to related Web sites, go to www.advocate.com
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