'Mr. Wiz' eases on back to Baltimore for reprise of 1975 musical role

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nowadays, when people stop Andre De Shields on the street, they call him "Mr. Wiz."

But the Baltimore-born actor who created the title role in the musical "The Wiz" was almost overlooked for the part initially. And nearly two decades later, he had serious reservations about reprising the role in the revival that opens a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House on Tuesday.

"I wasn't sure there had been enough distance," De Shields said from New Orleans, approximately halfway into the show's 40-week, 20-city tour. "I also had to be convinced that I had left an indelible impression."

Being referred to by the general public as "Mr. Wiz" solved the latter problem. The solution to the former came from current events -- but more on that later.

First, De Shields offers a personal explanation for his decision to ease on down "The Wiz's" yellow brick road one more time. Eight months ago, Chico Kasinoir, a playwright he refers to as his mentor and life partner of 17 years, died of complications from acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"I mention it because it was at that very same time that [director] George Faison was really turning on his seductive wiles to have me make a decision about whether I was going to revisit my role," he says.

"In retrospect, it was perfectly timed because when Chico died in June, I would have had nothing to do in July, when 'The Wiz' started rehearsing, except luxuriate in my misery, instead of using all that energy on a character that ultimately gave me an opportunity to give vent to all of that rage, because the character of the Wiz is about rage and transcending rage."

That brings up the matter of current events. In thinking about the distance between the 1975 Broadway original and the revival, De Shields was also concerned about relevancy.

"In 1975, we were still living, if you will, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the progress of the civil rights movement. In 1992, however, we were experiencing urban insurrection in Los Angeles. That wasn't supposed to happen," he says.

"Somehow, we did misplace the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King had. So it was time to restore hope and optimism on the American horizon, and what better way to do that than 'The Wiz,' an entertainment with, at its center, the message of keeping hope alive?"

Of course, back in 1974 when De Shields first auditioned for the musical, such thematic concerns took a back seat to the more pressing problem of simply getting hired. He tried out for the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Lion and was turned down each time.

"I was on my way out the door. Now remember, I was new to New York in 1974, so I didn't have any shame. I begged for an audition as the Wiz," he recalls.

The producer told him he was looking for someone more mature, someone more like Frank Morgan, who played the role in the classic 1939 Judy Garland movie, "The Wizard of Oz."

"But I persisted, so they gave me a time to come back," De Shields continues. "I went home to my hole in the wall. I pulled my hair out to Jimi Hendrix length. I put on my high silver platforms, my elephant-sized bell-bottoms, my silver Masai earrings, and I went back there and I sang Wilson Pickett's 'In the Midnight Hour' with all the power and majesty that I could muster. And I achieved something that every actor at some point in his career wants to do; that is, change the mind of the producer."

"The Wiz" had its world premiere here at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in October 1974. It was a rocky start. By the time it opened on Broadway two and a half months later, the show had a new director and had been almost entirely reworked. Closing ** notices were posted on opening night, but the show went on to become a surprise hit, running for four years on Broadway.

Returning to Baltimore with "The Wiz" -- and with his original co-star, Stephanie Mills -- has special significance for De Shields. He has only performed here twice, but each time marked a milestone in his career. (The other was the 1988 revival of "Ain't Misbehavin'," which reunited him with the original Broadway cast, and which also played the Mechanic prior to Broadway.)

In 1974, his family was host to a party for "The Wiz'" cast and crew, which spilled out onto the sidewalk and back yard of the small Division Street house where he was raised. This time, a similar celebration is planned at his sister Carmen Tisdale's more spacious Randallstown home.

K? The ninth of 11 children, De Shields was born in Dundalk in

1946. His father, a tailor, moved the family to Division Street when Andre was 4. He speaks candidly about his memories of Baltimore.

"When I tell people now I'm from Baltimore, they say, 'What a lovely city.' I say, 'You're aware of the face lift, the corrective surgery.' I applaud that. But still, if you travel beyond the Inner Harbor you will still see the underbelly -- those claustrophobic, repressive neighborhoods that produce no optimism, that still tell black boys, 'You cannot dream. You cannot get over those walls.' And that's what I was fighting against."

But De Shields' talent would not be repressed. Although his parents -- now deceased -- were at first wary of his career choice, they never discouraged him. "They thought it was an unlikely pursuit for a young colored boy growing up in the inner city with no material means of support," he says.

At the same time, De Shields was living out his parents' own thwarted dreams. His older sister, Mary De Shields Watts Harold, who is sort of the unofficial family historian, recalls that their father was a singer who performed with a local choral group called the Elite Singers and that their mother had once hoped to be a dancer. "In her day and age, few girls were allowed to go to New York and follow their dreams," she says. "In Andre she saw her ambitions achieved."

De Shields was in all the usual elementary and junior high school pageants. And his sister, Carmen Tisdale, remembers, "As a little child, whenever he was in something at school, my mother would pack all of us up, along with my father, and we would see whatever he was in."

He also performed informally every chance he got -- singing on street corners with his younger brother, Jeffrey, and dancing with his favorite partner, his late sister Iris, at parties given by family and friends.

Despite this, "we never thought he would go on to the theater," Mary Harold says. "Andre was the academic brain. He would be up until 3 o'clock in the morning doing homework because that was the only time he could get peace and quiet."

De Shields graduated from City College, which was then a predominantly white, all-male institution. "It was quite a deal in the 1960s to be traveling from Division Street several miles, taking two buses," he recalls.

After City, he won a scholarship to Wilmington College, a small Quaker school in Ohio. He was the first member of his family to go to college. Wilmington gave him a chance to act in a full-fledged stage play -- "A Raisin in the Sun."

"I was happy for the first time in my life," he says.

He spent his junior year in Denmark, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin. While still a student there, he auditioned for director Tom O'Horgan's Chicago company of "Hair," making his professional debut before he graduated.

Four years later, he made his Broadway debut in a science-fiction play called "Warp," produced by Chicago's Organic Theater Company. "Warp" closed after 12 performances, but De Shields decided to stay in New York, which has been his home ever since. And his experience in "Warp" proved of continuing value.

"In the character that I played in 'Warp,' Xander, the Unconquerable, are the seeds of the Wiz," he explains. "Both characters have a sense of outrageousness, a sense of theatrical flamboyance, otherworldliness and the all-important quotient of rage."

Xander also influenced his portrayal of the Viper in "Ain't Misbehavin' " -- his most notable Broadway role since "The Wiz," and a role that brought him an Emmy when the show was televised in 1982.

Although De Shields is convinced "The Wiz" was a landmark for black artists on Broadway, he says, "There still is not a substantial canon of Afrocentric literature, dramatic or musical, in mainstream American theater. We performers of color must . . . self-empower by becoming directors, becoming playwrights, producers, casting directors -- the whole gamut."

In his case, that gamut has included fewer screen opportunities than he'd like; his only released movie was a 1988 feature called "Prison." Instead, he has diversified to other fields, becoming a teacher, director and writer.

He is currently head of Carnegie Hall's Jazzed Education Project, a program aimed at restoring arts to the public school curriculum. He's also been a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and Southern Methodist University.

His most recent writing is "Saint Tous," a work about Toussaint L'Ouverture, an 18th-century Haitian revolutionary who led a slave uprising. His research led him to acquire a master's degree in African-American studies from New York University in 1991.

Almost three decades have passed since Andre De Shields left Baltimore. "Escape was my salvation," he says. However, he's looking forward to coming back -- if only for a week.

"One of the reasons why I'm so happy about completing this circle by bringing 'The Wiz' back to Baltimore is I have an opportunity to thank [my family] for the spiritual sacrifice they all made in supporting me," he says.

And he's also eager to spread the message of "The Wiz" -- a message that has clearly been a guiding principle in his own life. As his character sings in "Believe in Yourself": "Believe what you feel and know you're right because the time will come around when you'll say it's yours."

'THE WIZ'

Where: Lyric Opera House.

When: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. Through Feb. 28.

Tickets: $19.50-$29.50.

Call: (410) 889-3911.

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