Legendary performer André De Shields welcomed audiences back to Broadway at the opening of the Tony award-winning musical “Hadestown” last week.
The show opened to a sold-out crowd, but the Delta variant and the increases in cases of COVID-19 have put a slight damper on what was going to be a major celebration of Broadway. But not for De Shields.
The audience gave the actors a two and a half minute standing ovation before the show started — which prompted De Shields to rethink his role on stage.
“I had to realize I am no longer in charge,” he says. “The audience will tell us when they are ready to have us to speak, when they are ready to have us to sing, when they are ready to receive the medicine that we always promised that we are going to deliver.”
Each person in the audience — 900 individuals who chose to come together on the evening of Sept. 2 at the Walter Kerr Theater — wore a mask that displayed their personality, he says.
At the reopening of the musical “Waitress” last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer reportedly spoke to the cast before the show and emphasized that the industry is not only beloved, it's essential. De Shields agrees that New York can’t truly come back without Broadway.
“This is why New York is the cultural trendsetter not only of the United States of America, but of the world,” he says. “And in New York, the spine, the cultural spine is Broadway.”
The pandemic gave people an opportunity to think about how Broadway hasn’t always reflected the diversity of New York City. Now, people are referring to Broadway as “the Great Bright Way,” he says, instead of the old nickname “the Great White Way.”
The excitement that came when it was announced in May that Broadway would reopen in September has been withered by the Delta variant. People need to “approach the problem” and find ways to create a new world, De Shields says.
“This is not a time to be afraid,” he says. “This is a time to learn that every difficulty, every complication, every problem disguises a blessing.”
Nostalgia for old norms needs to end — a frightening thought for some people, he says. But he believes stepping into the unknown will allow the paradigm to transition to a more inclusive, empathetic, united culture.
In his 2019 Tony acceptance speech, the then 73-year-old inspired viewers with his acceptance speech, where he laid out his cardinal rules for success: “Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming,” and, “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.”
De Shields says the reason he can make such an impactful statement is he takes his own advice. Before returning to Broadway after 18 months of the pandemic, he reconsidered his cardinal rules and found they still hold up.
“When that audience stood for those two and a half minutes, those eyes, all of those eyes above those masks were lit up because they saw us coming,” he says. “There was a hunger in those eyes, not avarice, but a hunger for a new kind of nourishment that could heal what we all have recognized as a festering cultural wound.”
People often misquote his second cardinal rule, he says, and talk about where they want to “go” rather than where they want to “be.”
Sometimes, people who don’t know where they’re headed feel like they need to get there in a hurry. But for De Shields, there’s no rush to get anywhere in life.
“In the race between the hare and the tortoise, we should experiment with being the tortoise,” he says. “And as those of us from the Black experience know — keep your eye on the prize and hold on.”
This segment aired on September 8, 2021.