Every woman in the world loves a big black man," and Broadway loves Andre de Shields. The 55-year-old performer currently struts his mash potato, monkey and twist in a James Brown-inspired song-and-dance "Big Black Man" in The Full Monty, netting multiple accolades and cheers. As the eldest member of the Hot Metal strip crew, his character, Noah "Horse" T. Simmons, agonizes over whether or not the women of Buffalo will want to watch "Red Foxx skip around in a pair of blue underpants." Performing, even stripping, is not something de Shields is shy about—it's something he loves. Formerly a Tony nominee for Play On!, his work in The Full Monty has earned him a second nomination, an Outer Critics' Award (a tie with The Producers' Gary Beach), a Drama Desk nomination and a nomination for the Best Male Dancer Astaire Award. The latter especially surprised de Shields who never trained as a dancer. Instead he had the inspiration—and genes—of a mother who always wanted to dance, but couldn't because her mother thought it was not the proper thing for a young African American girl to do in 1915 when no one wanted to be seen as "shufflin'." Dancing in The Full Monty, he says, "makes manifest my mother's dream. It's spontaneous regeneration."
Playbill On-Line: What's it like getting your second Tony nomination? Is it less exciting? Andre de Shields: The first time is a nod—perhaps you can be a member of the club. This second time, maybe they’re going to give me the keys to the club. The second nomination honors longevity and endurance. I teach young actors and I tell them everybody’s talented. But talent and patience, talent and patience is what is rewarded. [The second nomination] is a passing grade.
PBOL: I heard you took off your first performance since Full Monty began, to accept an Alumni of the Year Award from your alma mater, University of Wisconsin at Madison.
AS: Taking off was like rushing a fraternity. Marcus Neville—Harold—who's as out of his mind off stage as he is on, said "The Machine is going to miss a performance?" That's what they call me, "The Machine." I told my understudy invite your friends, your family and your agent, this is it! [The award] is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
PBOL: How do you keep up this schedule? You seem to be at every gala and charity event, you never miss a performance and you teach a Shakespeare class at New York University. How do you do it?
AS: I live my life by a mantra—if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. I’ve been through the fire and I’m okay. The writer Honre de Balzac wrote "Constant toil is the law of art as it is of life." As long as I’m doing 24/7 what I love, it loves me back. Fatigued, exhausted, tired are not in my vocabulary.
PBOL: Why do you teach?
AS: I teach because I don’t want to be jaded. Teaching young people keeps me refreshed, rejuvenated; it keeps me young, but not in the way America worships youth. I mean, it gives me a supple mind, flexible vision, adaptability. The students are about to embark on the road I’ve journeyed. "Let me tell you about the pitfalls, where the monsters are hiding, let me drop the bread crumbs." That keeps me connected and valuable. As an artist, it keeps me an activist, an artist and a scholar. This year, all my students who earned a 3.5 got a free ticket to The Full Monty. The next day, I understood why they were all looking at the floor when I walked into class! But that’s a teacher teaching and doing. I can say "Do what I say, do what I do." PBOL: Did any particular performer inspire you?
AS: The epiphany that set me on this road was John Bubbles [aka John William Sublett]. Mostly he’s forgotten, but Fred Astaire could tell you about him. They were contemporaries. John Bubble was one of the stars in the Vincent Minnelli film "Cabin the Sky.” When I was 9 or 10, I saw that movie and there was this guy dressed in white from head to toe, doing this dance with Lena Horne and he was so hypnotic. It was the first time I was intoxicated. I wanted to grow up to do what that guy John Bubbles did.
PBOL: It says in your bio you're a triple capricorn. I've never heard of that before. What does that mean?
AS: If one is going to follow astrology— which was the first science—one needs to know their three signs: the sun sign (I’m a Capricorn, born January 12), the rising sign and also, where was the moon. If you put any face on determinism, if you’re a triple Capricorn or a triple anything, you must surrender to your destiny and all glory will break loose. If you don’t, all hell will.