TMR Exclusive: André De Shields on Project1Voice and the State of African-American Theater

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make any noise?

By , Columnist

André De Shields in "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Douglass to Deliverance"

On Monday, June 20, theaters all across the U.S. will host an unprecedented event to raise money and awareness for African-American theater. Prominent figures from stage and screen will gather to participate in readings of Alice Childress's classic 1950s play, Trouble in Mind. Entitled "1Voice, 1Play, 1Day," the event marks the inaugural event for a new initiative called Project1Voice.

Among the luminaries taking part are André De Shields, Peter Coyote, John Mahoney, Bill Irwin, Leslie Uggams, La Chanze, and Irma P. Hall. I had to opportunity to ask Mr. De Shields a few questions about his participation and his thoughts on the state of African-American theater today.

André De Shields, known among many other accomplishments for originating the title role in the original Broadway production of The Wiz as well as for Play On! and Ain't Misbehavin', is an Emmy Award-winning actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, novelist, and college professor. At the Classical Theatre of Harlem, he has performed in works of Shakespeare (as King Lear), Derek Walcott, Langston Hughes, and more. A receipient of multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominations, he won the Outer Critics Circle Award for The Full Monty in 2001 and a couple of years ago was honored with a special Obie Award for Sustained Excellence over his more than four-decade career.

Project1Voice is meant to raise money and awareness for African-American theatre across the U.S.What would you say is the state of African-American theatre today? And how does it compare to when you began your stage career? 

In 2011 there persists a need to raise nationwide awareness of black America's contribution to theatrical literature; both for society at large, and black Americans specifically. There is no other storytelling medium but the theatre whose mission is cultural literacy.

In light of the progress black Americans have made in other mediums, such as film, television, the recording industry, corporations, fashion, and publishing, it is lamentable that we continue to invest so little money, time, and energy in establishing a world-class theatre that speaks to the indelible influence that black Americans have had on world culture. The status of African American theatre today reflects the conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to here it, does it make any noise? Alas, if black Americans insist on staying away from the theatre in droves, then does Black Theatre exist at all?

In terms of when I began my career in 1969, it is the same as it ever was. To my knowledge, there is not a single major commercial publication or organization--magazine, newspaper, NAACP or otherwise--committed to promoting and recognizing excellence in black Theatre. The three outstanding but non-commercial exceptions are Beth Turner's Black Masks, Larry Leon Hamlin's biennial National Black Theatre Festival, and AUDELCO (the New York-based Audience Development Committee).

Were you familiar with Alice Childress's play Trouble in Mind before this project? What does the play have to say to today's audiences?

Yes, I was familiar with Trouble in Mind prior to Project1Voice. The play's original message continues to resonate for today's society: There is a between-the-lines-truth that evaluates White America as the dominant culture, while peoples of color are made to feel poor, ignorant, and subservient. This message is particularly egregious when there is so much black wealth in America.

In terms of your own work, what are you currently working on or planning?

I am currently portraying the title role in Charles Smith's memory play, The Gospel According to James, directed by Chuck Smith. The play is a fictionalized account of the 1930 lynching of two young black men in Marion, Indiana, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. James Cameron, the title character, was intended to be number three, but was miraculously spared. Cameron lived to tell his story of terror and survival until 2006, when he died at age 92. Legend has it that the event was also the inspiration for the racial lament "Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol and famously recorded by Billie Holiday 1939.

If there's anything else you'd like to say about Project1Voice, or about African-American theatre or theatre in general, please feel free to add anything you'd like.

Project1Voice is thankfully at the vanguard of a spirited movement to remind the world that performing artists are griots, keepers of the faith, repositories of the history of civilization, living libraries that keep vitally alive the who, what, where, when, and why of humankind's genesis in--and eventual walk out of--what we know today as the continent of Africa. Jon, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on behalf of those of us who choose to live life with our eyes open wide, wide, wide.

For more on Project1Voice please visit its website.

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Jon Sobel is a freelance writer, web editor, theater and music critic, marketing writer, and musician. His newest project is the blog Park Odyssey, where he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City - over a thousand of them.

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