Veteran Broadway actor André De Shields earned a Tony Award in 2019 for his role as Hermes in Hadestown. In 1996, he was a guest of the Educational Theatre Association’s National Conference in New York for a panel discussion on cultural diversity in theatre education. At the time, according to a survey conducted five years earlier, fewer than 2 percent of the theatre teachers in the United States were African American, and about 1.5 percent were members of other ethnic minorities. Here’s what De Shields said then about diversity.

HERE’S AN IDEA that I used to think I understood so specifically, and now it’s getting a little amorphous for me: this idea of cultural diversity in theatre education. I look at the group in front of me, and I think I can presume that we are all teachers of some sort, mentors of some sort.

I don’t have any problem with the concept of cultural. We’re all educated; I’ve got a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. from New York University. I don’t have a problem with the idea of theatre; that is where I make my living, and that is where I’m sure many of us go for our entertainment, for our diversion, for our enlightenment. I don’t have a problem with the idea of education. That certainly is one of the two basic tenets of the theatre: to entertain and to educate.

So, what word did I leave out? Anybody? Diversity. I have a problem with the concept of diversity. If I had a camera and I took a snapshot of this room, the room would look white. Not diverse. Now of course, we have an African American lady here, an African American gentleman there, an African American lady here. But if you look at this room, it looks homogenous, which is the exact opposite of diverse.

So, I say, problem number one lies somewhere with those of us who are trying to lead the way for diversity. Those of us who consider ourselves the pioneers in cultural diversity. Those of us who think we are making a difference. If we are making a difference, then it should show among us. It has to show among us. Otherwise, we will be accused of hypocrisy. Otherwise we will be accused of not practicing what we preach. Because what we’re doing right now is preaching to the choir, to the converted. And we can stroke each other and slap each other on the back and say, “Wow, you said some trenchant things. You really have some progressive ideas. Boy, are you forward looking.”

But we are not those people who need the medicine, who need the help, who need the change.

André De Shields at the 1996 Educational Theatre Association National Conference in New York.
André De Shields at the 1996 Educational Theatre Association National Conference in New York. Photo by Don Corathers.

I now say so often because I want it to reverberate in our minds: In 1903 — which every year becomes a more perfect bookend because we are now in 1996, we are now four years from the millennium, four years from the 21st century — in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois said, “The problem of the 20th century is the crisis of the color line.” He said that in 1903, and here we are about to change millennia, and we haven’t really addressed or resolved that crisis. We revere Dr. Martin Luther King. We revere Mahatma Gandhi. We revere any number of human rights and civil rights avatars. But in our personal lives, in our specific interactions, we have not carried that lesson to the point of changing this land, the United States of America, which is the most diverse culture on this planet. But our diversity is as separate, segregated, and unequal as our memories of colonial America, when society in America had everything to do with the politics of plantocracy.

When I talk to African American groups, and when I talk to my African American friends, I use the term “slave mentality,” because I want us to understand that part of this idea of progressivism has to do with letting go of these ideas that somebody did something to me and therefore I am disabled and I cannot achieve the way other people achieve. My slice of the American pie is necessarily going to be smaller because I have been handicapped. My dream is not going to be as large as your dream; I have this emotional scar because my grandfather, five times removed, was a slave. That’s slave mentality, pointing to you and saying, “Ah, You’re the reason I can’t get over this hump.”

I’m beginning to understand now, however, that it isn’t just those of us whose skin is of a different hue who suffer from slave mentality. Obviously if you are the progeny of the oppressor, of the master, you must be dealing with some kind of slave mentality too, or we wouldn’t have to come to these kinds of seminars. We wouldn’t have to come and hold these kinds of colloquia. We wouldn’t have to be, as I said before, preaching to the converted.

There’s another kind of separation that we need to heal, and that is, although we put the words together often, the implied separation between education and theatre, or theatre and education. I do a lot of work as a distinguished visiting professor, which means that I go to schools like New York University, Southern Methodist University, the University of Michigan, Morehouse College, Buffalo State College, where the young people who want to pursue careers in the performing arts are trained to be actors, directors, playwrights, administrators, etc.

There is — we talk about the invisible ceiling that we hit in this society sometimes — there is an invisible wall that separates what happens in the academic circle from what happens in the commercial circle, what happens in the marketplace. But if you talk to any of the people in charge, they will tell you that the program is designed to put the young people in the marketplace, to make them highly competitive.

Eva Noblezada, André De Shields, and Reeve Carney in Hadestown.
Eva Noblezada, André De Shields, and Reeve Carney in Hadestown. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

We must restore the performing arts to education on every level, long before we get to college, long before we get to the university. We must restore arts to our educational curricula. Otherwise we are cheating our young people and we are lying to ourselves, to think that someone is going to get through 12, 16, 20 years of education, come out a well-rounded individual, a responsible citizen, a happy person, with a concept of personal success, but has never had an opportunity to express him or herself in a way beyond those things that are in a textbook, beyond those things that ignore his or her soul, essence, heart.

I make this test when I speak to young people: I ask them about the Preamble of the Constitution. Not only do they have no idea what the word preamble means, but they don’t even know what the Constitution is. So, I remind them. Anybody want to help me? [Widespread mumbling of the Preamble in the audience: “We the people …”]

And what about the Declaration of Independence? [More mumbling: “When in the course of human events …”]

And what about this marvelous concept: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I am one who believes you cannot have life, you cannot have liberty, and you cannot know how to pursue happiness if you have not been exposed to arts in your education.

This story appeared in the October 1996 print version of Dramatics. 

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Thespian Throwback: August Wilson

    Thespian Throwback: August Wilson

    The legendary playwright sat down with Dramatics in 1990

    Oct 10, 2019

    Thespian Throwback: Doing the Right Thing

    Thespian Throwback: Doing the Right Thing

    Six artistic directors weigh in on actor training

    Oct 03, 2019

    Thespian Throwback: Dear Dad

    Thespian Throwback: Dear Dad

    Why I’m in theatre

    Sep 26, 2019