André De Shields, 77, is striking. He has brown skin, chiseled cheekbones, and a perfectly sculpted afro streaked with white, gray, and black. In his Broadway performance of “Death of a Salesman,” which completed a limited run on January 15, he skulked, crept, and glided across the stage as the character of Ben Loman. I can’t imagine that he’s ever taken a bad picture in his life.
De Shields will be honored by Baltimore City leaders on September 21 with a ceremonial street dedication. It’s part of several days of festivities encircling the return of Artscape. The southwest corner of the 1800 block of Division Street, the street where he grew up, will be known as André De Shields Way. Mayor Brandon Scott will also declare the day André De Shields Day.
“I left Baltimore in 1964,” De Shields told me when we met up for an interview last May. “It’s always been essential to what I do in my life and in my career that people understand that I am who I am because I was made in Baltimore.”
It has never been easy to make a life in the arts, but things seem especially hard for born-and-bred Black artists from Baltimore right now. Everything is expensive, and it’s harder to make ends meet. There are not a lot of places where they are welcome to perform and put on exhibitions (although venues like Blakwater House and Black Artist Research Space do a great job of meeting the need). Given these tough times, the fact that De Shields — a veteran and legend on stage, on screen, and in music — is being honored matters very much. It’s important that he loves Baltimore the way he does, and it’s important that the city loves him back.
De Shields has an extensive resume. He became famous for Broadway performances in “The Wiz,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “Play On!”, and “The Full Monty.” He’s received countless honors and awards, including a Tony award in 2019 for his role as Hermes in the musical “Hadestown.”
He’s also been a tireless advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and for people living with HIV and AIDS.
He was born in Dundalk and reared in West Baltimore in a family of 11 children. He graduated from Baltimore City College in 1964.
De Shields told me that he remembers Pennsylvania Avenue as the “cultural spine of Black Baltimore.”
“Black folks would come from all over the place. Of course, in ’64, we didn’t go beyond North Avenue. But when we were looking for entertainment, when we were looking for good greasy finger-lickin’ food, cinema, there was no other place to go but Pennsylvania Avenue.”
He remembers watching his first Motown Review at The Royal Theater.
“Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations — this is all one concert,” he says. “And this is where I began self-actualizing. What do I want to be? Do I want to be what I do? Or do I want to be who I am?”
His career has taken him all over the world. But he’d always return home, where his family remained. On these visits, he said, he noticed a change.
“I saw that the avenue was disappearing,” he said. “Our cultural spine was disappearing.”
De Shields is a Black star in the same tradition as Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier. He is always well-dressed, composed, and regal. He sees his work as a form of activism by educating, illuminating, and uplifting. He wants people in Baltimore to see him as a reflection of themselves.
“It is embarrassingly expensive to live in New York, and it gets more expensive every month,” he told me. “So, I wanted to dispel that image about if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I want to make it in Baltimore. I want to make it in Baltimore so that people can say, ‘that’s what we produced.’”
De Shields says he would like to have more of a guiding hand over Baltimore’s arts community, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. Speaking about whether we can and should restore Pennsylvania Avenue to what it was when he was younger, he says there’s no need — because there’s room to make something better.
“I don’t think we want to get back. I think we want to create a new cultural spine so that we are evolving.”
“I was just dumbfounded by how elegant he is, how he moves. How everything is very intentional,” says Tonya Miller, senior advisor of the Office of Arts & Culture. Miller brought De Shields to Baltimore in 2019 to have then-Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young give him the key to the city. She’s also the reason he’ll be honored on September 21.
Over the last few months, De Shields has traveled back and forth to Baltimore — recording a song with rapper and activist Eze Jackson and produced by Mateyo. The song is titled “Keep Climbing.”
“The song is a Baltimore Club/House music dramatization of his 2019 Tony Awards acceptance speech,” Jackson says.
The acceptance speech Jackson is referring to, delivered after his “Hadestown” win, went viral almost as soon as De Shields delivered it.
“Baltimore, Maryland. Are you in the house,” De Shields asked the crowd. He was gleaming in a gold bow tie and a black suit sparkling with gold embroidery.
“I am making good on my promise that I would come to New York and become someone you’d be proud to call your native son,” he says. He goes on to share his three cardinal rules:
“One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. Two, slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing.”
The song is due out later this year through Jackson’s label EPIC FAM.
“I’ve worked with so many artists who solely do music, but André brought the Theater to the studio. He, Mateyo, and I have been like children in a toy store working on this. I can’t wait for people to hear him like this,” Jackson says.
De Shields said he hopes his words permeate the listeners’ consciousness. He said he hopes it’s a hit, not for himself, but for the city.
“If while you’re dancing, you are allowing the philosophy to sink into your heart, into your soul, into your mind, then my work is done,” he said.