A Soul for Greek Drama

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Theater legend Andre De Shields will be upping the star-voltage in the Central Park production of Euripides’ The Bacchae at the Delacorte Theater, which begins its run on Aug. 11. Having just come off his star turn in Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe at the Clurman Theatre, the Hell’s Kitchen resident is at the top of his game, and poised to create a Tiresias that would make Euripides himself smile.

Andre De Shields says Greek drama requires huge emotions from actors.

Andre De Shields says Greek drama requires huge emotions from actors.

Q: How did you get involved with The Bacchae?

A: JoAnne Akalaitis, who is the director of The Bacchae, contacted my agent through the casting directors of the Public Theater, and said something terribly flattering—“I’ve always wanted to work with Andre De Shields.” So we set up a meeting, and JoAnne and I met, and we got along wickedly well.


Q: Most people identify you with big musicals like The Full Monty, The Wiz and Ain’t Misbehavin. Do you feel at home with Greek drama?

A: Yes, I do. One of the reasons why I work as well as I do, and as often as I do, is because I have a big soul. I have an old soul, and a big soul. I have a capacious soul, large—larger-than-life. And Greek drama is about that bigness. It’s about huge emotions. Greeks are known for their tragedies and not their comedies. It is always a situation of the rational mind of man in conflict with the capricious nature of the gods. And man never wins.

Q: When we spoke a few years back about your Lear in The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2006 production, you said that you experienced a coup de foudre one night that jolted you into a deeper understanding of your character. Have you had any equivalent “strokes of lightning” with your character Tiresias?

A: Well, yes, indeed I have. Because the stereotypical approach to a prophet, or a blind oracle, is to go for the esoteric or the mysticism, the heightened emotion and speech. But the thunderbolt, or the stroke of lightning, that went off in my head concerning Tiresias was, he’s a very ordinary kind of guy, he goes into these trances when he is possessed by the spirit of the Divine, and can reveal information that he doesn’t particularly understand. You know, it’s a burden being a prophet because no one knows where you are coming from. Not least of all, yourself. You are a tool, you are a channel.

Q: What is in the pipeline for you?

A: I did in February for Black History Month a solo performance of a piece [Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory; From Douglass to Deliverance] written and researched by myself based on the life of Frederick Douglass. And it was seen by Wendy Taucher, who is the artistic director at The Yard in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard. The Yard is a Performing Arts College. And she has invited me to bring the piece there immediately after The Bacchae closes on August 30. After that, I’m going down to Atlanta to the Alliance Theatre, where I am going to be performing in David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre. From the Greeks to Mamet. That is a real leap of faith.

* Interview has been condensed and edited.


The Bacchae

runs Tuesday through Sunday,
Aug. 11 to 30 at 8 p.m. at
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Tickets are free; for more information, call 212-539-8750 or visit www.publictheater.org.

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