‘King Hedley II’
Through March 8
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Out actor André De Shields could easily boast an unusually illustrious career. Instead, he simply describes his life’s work as markedly eclectic.
Over the years he’s acted in countless classic and contemporary works and appeared in the original productions of Broadway musicals “The Full Monty,” “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “The Wiz.” In the early ‘70s, he even choreographed Bette Midler’s backup dancers, the Harlettes. But what has been glaringly missing from the De Shield’s resume — until now — is a part penned by the late August Wilson, the foremost African-American playwright of his time and one of the greatest American playwrights ever.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to do an August Wilson play. I did,” says De Shields, who is currently playing Stool Pigeon in Wilson’s “King Hedley II” at Arena Stage. “But theater is a director’s game. I had to wait until I was chosen. That came when director Timothy Douglas called and offered me the part. And I accepted.”
Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during the Reagan era, “King Hedley II” is the ninth installment in Wilson’s 10-part series, “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” It tells the story of King Hedley (here played by Bowman Wright), an ex-con who returns to his old neighborhood attempting to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators to finance a business venture. But life is tough and the odds are against him.
Wilson deals in archetypes, explains the out actor. And Stool Pigeon is the fool. “Like the fool in ‘King Lear,’ Pigeon is the conscience of the king. He’s an outlier who gets away with a lot. He quotes the Bible, but Pigeon’s quotes are all misquotes. It’s fun but what it does is speak to his ability to temper information. The most difficult thing for people to receive is the truth because it stings. Truth has to be modulated, mitigated and disguised in humor. Like Mary Poppins says, ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.’”
The play’s title character challenges the status quo of the haves and have-nots.
“To me it resonates today,” he says. “There are those with authority and those without. I’m specifically referencing young black American men who’ve been taken out by white cops. This isn’t mentioned in the play but you can’t get away from the allusions. The play’s not easy. There’s comedy but it’s a tragedy in every sense.”
In writing a cycle that includes a play for every decade of the 20th century, Wilson accomplished what no other American playwright has. His work captures the joys and struggles of the African-American experience.
“But in that cycle there isn’t a single gay character,” says De Shields, 69. “Wilson and I are contemporaries. His Hill District is the same as the Baltimore ghetto where I grew up. I know there was an Andre in his neighborhood. But still, he didn’t write a gay character.
“I’m not condemning him. I’m reporting. His plays are relentlessly heterosexual, and that’s cool. I don’t see a reflection in them. But that doesn’t mean there’s not something in it for everyone. They contain universal hard lessons about life. Just don’t go wearing your gender badge.”
Looking ahead, De Shields has compiled a professional bucket list. From the commercial canon, he’d like to the play the King in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I,” a part Yul Brynner played on stage and screen.
“People tend to assume my influences are Sidney Poitier and James Brown. They’re great, but growing up I really admired Yul Brynner. He was gorgeous and his ethnicity was all over the place. I even mimicked his sexy walk.”
Part of a good career in theater, says De Shields, is sustainability and longevity.
“You have to work all the time in order to work all the time. Yes, you aim for certain parts but in the meantime you work. Praise gods, I am employed more often than not.”