By// Starrene Rhett Rocque
André De Shields has established himself as an actor, director, singer, choreographer and force to be reckoned with over the past forty plus years. The award-winning actor has appeared in productions like The Full Monty, Prymate, Play On! and more. He has also made multiple TV appearances on iconic shows like Cosby, Sex and the City and Law & Order, and has worked with Patti LaBelle, Viggo Mortensen, Hugh Grant and the list goes on.
Yet despite decades of career success, De Shields keeps a humble outlook on what has carried him this far.
“I’ve been in this industry now for 45 years, and I know these kinds of miracles happen on a daily basis,” he says. “I don’t take them for granted but it’s not unusual if your heart’s in the right place and your head’s in the right place. If your doing what you love to do, you can’t help but be blessed.”
It’s this type of cosmic energy that brought De Shields and award-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman together for the forthcoming stage production of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book at Chicago’s Goodman Theater.
“There has been a long mutual admiration society between Mary Zimmerman and myself but it was unbeknownst to both of us,” said De Shields who, after seeing Zimmerman’s 1996 stage play Metamorphoses, made a mental note that they’d one day work together. “I was here in 1998 in Play On!, the Duke Ellington musical and got to sing a duet called ‘Rocks in My Bed.’ [Eventually] I learned that Mary Zimmerman would have our stage manager hang her earphone out of the booth over the stage so Mary could hear us sing the song, because it did bring down the house every night.”
Now, nearly 11 years after De Shields made that pact, he and Zimmerman have been brought back together where he will play King Louie and Akela in The Jungle Book.
JETmag.com caught up with the legendary actor to chat about his new roles, how he plans to pay homage to Louis Armstrong, the Bollywood influence on the production, why theater is an important vehicle for the African American community and more.
You’re playing King Louie and Akela, so how does that work out since they’re both major characters?
I should mention that Mary Zimmerman’s process is to begin work without a script, so these characters have been revealing themselves to us as Mary has been going deeper and deeper into her research. Day one of the rehearsal process is just come in as an open slate. Mary was always cautious to say, “Here’s the page I’m bringing today but don’t marry yourself to it yet. It may change. It may disappear.” That’s a great challenge. The first character she introduced to me was Akela, who is the leader of the wolf pack who rears Mowgli in The Jungle Book as if he were a wolf, which is why he finds it difficult when his confidante Bagheera wants to take him to the man village. The flipside of Akela is King Louie. Every animal character that Mowgli meets has designs on him. Either he wants to eat Mowgli, or he wants to trade something with Mowgli. Akela is the character who understands that as cute and cuddly as Mowgli is, he is dangerous for the wolf pack because the predator that’s after him is Shere Khan the tiger, so Akela has to make a decision not only for Mowgli’s safety but for the peace of the wolf pack, and he says Mowgli must go. The flipside of that is King Louie, who discovers that Mowgli wants to stay in the jungle and strikes a deal with him. “I can help you stay in the jungle if you help me learn how to be a man like you,” so these two leader characters are the flipside of one coin. Akela disappears halfway through act one and King Louie closes act one and then Akela comes back at the end of act two because of a deal he made with Bagheera. Bageheera has asked for Akela’s promise for Mowgli’s safety, and in return Bagheera says when it comes to the point in your life, as happens with all alpha males, that when you strike you miss your mark, which means the younger males say it’s time to take him out, Bagheera says, “I’ll be there to help you,” so that’s their deal and of course in the unfolding of the journey in the jungle, Akela reaches the point where he does miss his mark and at the end of the show there’s a howl and Bagheera says, “I have to now take care of my part of the bargain. So in a nutshell that’s what I’m doing in the show in terms of character work.”
Talk about the Bollywood influence on the music and set design.
The jungle in this instance is in India and that’s why there’s that East Indian influence in the music, and it’s a lovely collaboration with the different American mediums that are in the film—many of which are borrowed form the original Disney movie that was released in 1967. There’s a particular delicious combination of the music in King Louie’s piece, which is called, “I Want to be Like You,” because it luxuriates in jazz and swing and there’s that same kind of syncopation in both Indian music and what we know as American classical music—jazz.
Speaking of jazz, what’s the spin on King Louie’s big number? Are you gonna skat?
We gotta skat because I’m standing on the shoulders of the father of jazz and the innovator of skat, Louis Armstrong. One of the shows that I do is called Ambassador of Satch, which is based on the life and times of Louis Armstrong because in the 50s, that’s exactly what he was, the culture ambassador to the rest of the world for us. In my research in putting that show together, I found as a footnote that Louis Armstrong was the first talent to be considered to be the voice of King Louie in the film, which makes sense to me not only because of the characters name but also because in 1967 when the film came out, Louis Armstrong was at the top of his game. So it makes sense that he would be King Louie in the Jungle Book but there was a hint of backlash because of the supposed racial slur that that would have meant to have Louis Armstrong play an orangutan, so he was passed over for what I call the prince of jazz. If Louis Armstrong was the king then the prince was Louis Prima, and he’s the man who voiced the character of King Louie in the film. But Louis Prima, when he was alive, would pay homage to Louis Armstrong. So those are the big shoes that I’m trying to fill in this production of The Jungle Book, so yeah, I’m gonna skat, I’m gonna swing, I’m gonna sneak in a few impersonations of Louis Armstrong and I’m just gonna have a ball.
How will the animals be represented from a visual standpoint?
We’re not wearing masks. You’ll see the human in the animal, which is all part of the allegory because the way we teach is to use this idea of anthropomorphism, so that’s the trade that we’ve made in the animal kingdom in the jungle book, and Mary Zimmerman has heightened it even more by making the company totally multicultural. It’s totally ethnically diverse, so it’s very difficult to make any racial generalizations because you see someone from India playing in the show, you see someone from Pakistan, you see someone from Egypt; of course you see White Americans, you see Black Americans, you see children and other Asian ethnicities, so you have to stop for a moment and take this all in and attempt to understand what is the message of this gumbo of cultures and all of that diversity is reflected in the design of the show. The costumes are gorgeous and the set of course is lush and colorful, so it really serves to transport you to a place that hopefully you can let go of your predispositions, your biases, your prejudices and let this wash over you and come away with again—allegories always have morals—they’re tales of caution, and come away with what I’m now understanding one of the messages is evaluating yourself, not judging other people by what’s on the exterior because our real value is interior. So that’s one of the morals of The Jungle Book.
Is there anything else you want to add about the production?
African Americans don’t represent a great percentage of the demographics of audiences that attend theater. I know we do attend theater but were not a large percentage of it and I would like to take this opportunity to say to my sisters and brothers, please add this experience to your life’s philosophy. I know we’ve made huge inroads in Hollywood, we pretty much control spots and we have a huge portion of the recording industry so why don’t we go to the theater, which in my universe, is the source of our cultural literacy. Because those of us who perform on the live stage, those of us who make a living in the legitimate theater are the keepers of the faith, the guardians of the flame; we’re the living libraries; we are your griots. If you want to know where you come from in order to know how we got here or how we will get to the future, then you need to come to those people who are keeping the oral history who are telling the story for the purpose of educating you, not just entertaining you, but enlightening you about who you are who your ancestors were and who your progeny an be. So that’s what I’d like to say, come to the theater, it’s not as expensive as you think it is and it will help you understand what our contribution to world culture is in terms of personalities and events.