In the prologue to "King Hedley II," the searing and soaring August Wilson play enjoying a revival at Arena Stage, a character called Stool Pigeon describes people who "don't even know the story of how they got from tit to tat." But "the story's been written," he adds. "All that's left now is the playing out."
André De Shields, the exceptional Baltimore-born actor playing Stool Pigeon in this revival, relishes the image of predestination.
"It reverberates in me like a pebble in a still pool of water every time I say that line," he says.
The 69-year-old actor, the ninth of 11 children who grew up in West Baltimore, shares something of Stool Pigeon's philosophy.
"When the universe says OK, all the pieces are in place," says the New York-based De Shields. "It sounds a little esoteric, but it's been a cardinal truth in my existence. People need to know the story of how they got from tit to tat."
There's a story to how De Shields is only now performing a Wilson play for the first time in a career that spans 45 years. Previously, the actor felt distanced from the characters in the playwright's famed works chronicling the African-American experience.
"It wasn't a comfortable fit," De Shields says. "
But director Timothy Douglas sought out De Shields for Arena's "King Hedley II," and that made all the difference.
"I had to wait for the moment when a director would say, 'That's the actor I want to inhabit this role,' " De Shields says. "I'm doing August Wilson at the exact time I'm supposed to, with the brilliant director I'm supposed to, and with the delicious ensemble I'm supposed to."
Not that De Shields sits around waiting for fate to do its thing. He has been known to go after his goals. In 1974, for example, after unsuccessfully auditioning for the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion in a new musical called "The Wiz," he went after the title role, despite the producer's preference for a mature actor.
De Shields nailed the part, which he performed in the show's Baltimore premiere and then on Broadway, where he would later earn Tony Award nominations for his work in "The Full Monty" and "Play On!"
His many honors over the decades include an Obie Award (Off-Broadway's equivalent of the Tony) in 2007 for Sustained Excellence of Performance. In addition to the New York theater world, he has a long list of credits in regional theater and television. Teaching has also been a major activity for him.
"I've lived long enough to hear people say, 'I'm [an actor] because I saw you in such-and-such,' " De Shields says. "I like to feel that I have made a difference."
One of the things that made a difference in his own life was growing up near Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue, which the actor calls "the cultural spine" of the neighborhood.
"The Royal Theater — to me, it was a cathedral — was where I would go for my window on the world," De Shields says. "I was blown away as a 9-year-old seeing [the movie] 'Cabin in the Sky' there. That little voice in the core of one's existence, the little voice we ignore most of the time, said to me, 'Andre, that's what you're going to do.' I'm the one in the family who apparently was chosen to make manifest the dreams of our parents, who wanted to be performers."
De Shields followed his little voice on to college and onto the stage, without ever looking back. He has been back, though, most recently last month "to mark my 69th year on the planet" with family at the home on Division Street his family moved into in 1950 and where one of his siblings continues to live.
"It was a working class neighborhood and now it's a desolate place," De Shields says. "It isn't wasted on me that the Baltimore I grew up in is a snapshot of the Hill District of Pittsburgh that 'King Hedley II' is set it. Like Baltimore, Pittsburgh was a steel town that went bust and had to resurrect itself. It was a hard-knock town for blacks, as Baltimore was, and continues to be."
The actor, nicknamed "Jelly Belly" as a kid ("Because that's what I had then," he says), took something with him from the tough streets of Baltimore when he headed out of town to follow his ambitions.
"It was with a kind of mettle, a kind of warrior attitude that I was able to face down a world that was totally alien to me," De Shields says. "This is an industry that guarantees only rejection and insecurity. I have had a modicum of success, but it's still daunting."
If you go
"King Hedley II" continues through March 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington. Tickets are $45-$90. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.