WILMINGTON — A half-century after captivating audiences in Wilmington College’s Boyd Auditorium, theatre alumnus André De Shields took home the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical Sunday evening.
The veteran of stage, film and television won the coveted award for his portrayal of Hermes in the musical “Hadestown”, which was nominated for 14 Tonys and won eight trophies, including for Best New Musical.
The Best Actor Tony Award was the first by De Shields, 73, who previously earned Tony nominations his roles in “Play On!” and “The Full Monty.” He has received an Emmy Award, four Drama Desk Awards, an Obie Award and a Drama League Award, among others.
In his acceptance speech, De Shields attributed his longevity to a triad of personal rules: “Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”
His Broadway career spans five decades beginning in 1973 with a role in “Warp!” through “The Wiz”, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Prymate”, “Play On!”, “Impressionism” and, now, “Hadestown.”
De Shields’ break in the industry came in 1975 when he played the title character in The Wiz on Broadway, which ran for more than 1,600 performances and won the Tony for Best Musical.
While the bulk of his career has centered around Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theatre, he also possesses a significant resume in television.
In fact, he won an Emmy in 1982 for his performance in the NBC special, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and appeared on television’s “Another World”, “Cosby”, “Sex and the City”, “Law & Order” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
De Shields also choreographed two Bette Midler musicals in New York and has taught at New York University, the University of Michigan and Southern Methodist University.
De Shields, the ninth of 11 children who grew up in Baltimore, came to Wilmington College in 1964, an experience in culture shock to say the least.
“Arriving at Wilmington College, I felt like I left the precipice into the abyss,” he said in a 2004 interview with WC’s The LINK magazine.
But he became accustomed to his new environment and got a work-study job at the Randall Company, “an awful but necessary experience,” he said. Somewhat intimidated by the quality of actors at the College, he didn’t try out for a show his freshman year, in spite of having the ambition of becoming an actor hidden away in his “dream bank.”
His sophomore year, he was cast in WC Theatre’s production of “A Man for All Seasons” in the role of the English nobleman Thomas Cromwell. The student newspaper lauded his portrayal “in vivid fashion of the cold and conniving” Cromwell.
That performance and one shortly thereafter in “Alice in Wonderland” prompted director Marty Gilbert to produce the challenging show, “A Raisin in the Sun”, and cast De Shields in the Walter Lee Younger role. Gilbert described his performance as “brilliant.”
That production proved “a pivotal moment” in De Shields’ life.
“It was a huge milestone in my young adult life to finally demonstrate to my family this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. His mother, a traditional homemaker who rarely left their inner-city neighborhood, let alone Baltimore, and other family members took a bus to Ohio to see him in the show.
“After ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, it was no longer a question that could be refuted. It was understood. ‘This is what André does well and what he wishes to spend the rest of hi life doing,’ There was agreement with the people that I loved and wanted to impress.
“At Wilmington, I realized I had worth, merit and self-esteem because of my God-given talent.”