Dance : André De Shields in "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" at The Yard
In a YardArts Festival special event, actor André De Shields presents "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: From Frederick Douglass to Deliverance" this week. The acclaimed Broadway actor's first solo play premieres Friday, Sept. 4, at The Yard on Middle Road in Chilmark, followed by a champagne reception, and continues with performances on Saturday and Monday.
"It seemed fitting to pay tribute to a man who inspired our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, and our first African-American president, Barack Obama," Mr. De Shields says. The play celebrates Frederick Douglass as a source of inspiration for a range of African Americans throughout history, such as Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" opens with Mr. De Shields performing a slave ballet, a shorthand version of how Douglass, who was beaten daily early in his life, suffered at the hands of his owners. "Douglass began his life as a slave, and through heroic efforts, became one of America's most important and historically influential African-American leaders," Mr. De Shields says. After escaping bondage in Maryland, the 19th-century leader began his abolitionist career in New Bedford, where he began giving anti-slavery talks.
"Even more than a tribute, it's a thank-you note to Douglass for having collaborated with America's great emancipator president," Mr. De Shields says. "People don't understand how important the collaboration between Douglass and Abraham Lincoln was."
During the Civil War, Douglass worked with Lincoln on the treatment of black soldiers and later on a plan for moving liberated slaves out of the South. He also supported all forms of human equality, including female, Native American, and immigrant, as well as black.
Mr. De Shields first presented his solo rendition of Douglass's life in February at the Actors' Equity Association for Black History month. "I serve in a voluntary position for my union," the actor says. "That is how democracy works."
"[February 2009] was such a precedent-setting period," the actor says. It marked the bicentennial birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In close proximity were Barack Obama's inauguration and the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 80th birthday. A member of the association's Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, the actor felt such a confluence of important events called for an acknowledgment of Douglass's role in African-American history.
Mr. De Shields researched not just the period, but the historical continuum of African-American achievement influenced by Lincoln, who was known as the Great Emancipator.
Wendy Taucher, The Yards' artistic director, invited the actor to perform at the Chilmark dance colony after she attended the standing-room-only New York premiere last February. Mr. De Shields has spent the week at The Yard, fine-tuning the show in preparation for a new, two-week run at New York's Working Theatre this winter. "He is using The Yard as it was intended to be used," Ms. Taucher says.
Nominated for many Tony Awards, Mr. De Shields is probably best known for his Broadway star turn in "The Wiz," along with his roles in "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "The Full Monty." Last month he received the Living Legend Award from the National Black Theatre Festival.
Mr. De Shields appeared in "Impressionism" on Broadway this winter. He arrives on the Vineyard from New York's Shakespeare in the Park production of "The Bacchae," where he played Teiresias over the weekend. "That's what we actors do," he said about the switch from playing a blind Greek prophet to Frederick Douglass.
This is Mr. De Shields's second visit to The Yard. In 2008 he performed excerpts from Shakespeare's "Othello" that were joined with Verdi's opera version and Purcell's dance quartet, "The Moor's Pavane" in The Yard's "Othello Project."
Directing "Mine Eyes" is Alfred Preisser, artistic director at the Classical Theatre of Harlem.
"The challenge is to encapsulate 200 years of history," Mr. De Shields says. "We have to use indicators that will push the right buttons so people can fill in the blanks historically and emotionally."
One of those indicators in the play is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Mr. Shields says, "When people hear that music, whatever lives in us as patriotism will come forth, so I won't have to stand there and orate."
An accomplished choreographer as well as an actor, Mr. De Shields discussed the role of choreography in "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," describing dance and music as heightened forms of language. "There's choreography in every aspect of the performing arts," he says. "We have to provide emotional choreography, to drop those particular breadcrumbs for the audience."
"Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Frederick Douglass to Deliverance," Friday, September 4, 8 pm, followed by dessert and champagne; Saturday, September 5, 4 pm free family matinee and 8 pm; Monday, September 7, 7 pm, The Yard, Chilmark. Tickets Friday, premium seating $100; general seating $50; seniors and under 30, $25. Saturday and Monday, premium seating $50, general seating $25; senior and under 30, $15. dancetheyard.org.
Brooks Robards writes on theater, film, and books for The Times.