On Sunday, June 19, Broadway star André De Shields (Hadestown; The Full Monty; Play On!; Ain’t Misbehavin’; The Wiz) returns to Flushing Town Hall to reprise his role as the esteemed abolitionist leader and influential thinker in two live performances of his self-crafted solo show André De Shields is Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. This year’s presentations are part of the month-long Queens Rising celebration, which showcases the best of the borough’s cultural offerings and creative diversity, and honors Juneteenth – a longstanding African American holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the US, which was not officially designated a federal holiday until last year, following decades of activism and 2021’s massive Black Lives Matter movement.
The Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award winner De Shields, with a career spanning more than half a century, first debuted his show for Flushing Town Hall audiences in February of 2021, as the culminating event in the cultural institution’s Black History Trilogy series. He was the first artist to perform live from the stage following the venue’s physical closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and his livestreamed performance, originally slated to be available for 48 hours, was extended for an additional two weeks of viewing in response to popular demand.
De Shields’ appearance this June marks 157 years since Douglass himself appeared at Flushing Town Hall in 1865, to deliver a speech entitled “The Past and Present,” in which he addressed the role of African Americans in antebellum America. “Though Douglass began his life as a slave, through heroic effort, he became one of America’s most important and historically influential icons,” noted De Shields.
The shows will open with a Gospel Juneteenth Presentation by Harlem native Chuk Fowler and Company, inviting audiences to reflect on the significance of Juneteenth with images, words, and songs, including the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (also known as the “Black National Anthem”).
During his busy rehearsal week, André De Shields generously found the time to answer some questions about the show and its background.
What first inspired you to create this specific show?
André De Shields: Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory was originally conceived to commemorate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American Chief of State. It was performed on Monday, January 19, 2009, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center on 310 West 43rd Street in NYC.
Can you tell us a little about your process of conceiving, writing, and performing it?
Douglass wrote three autobiographical narratives, which I researched for facts of his youth on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, influences in his life as he transformed from illiterate slave to iconic abolitionist, and, ultimately, the greatest orator of the 19th century. The uncommon conceit I use to portray Douglass is anachronism, so that Douglass is not so much a long-dead historic figure, but rather a visitor from an era of great division in the land, come to caution 21st-century America against allowing history to repeat itself. Therefore, do not expect a simple regurgitation of Douglass’s most famous speeches, but do expect to encounter a fearless agitator for the elevation of Black life and the reconstruction of Black civilization.
Why is Flushing Town Hall the perfect venue for it?
Flushing Town Hall is the perfect venue for this event because on January 18, 1865, Frederick Douglass spoke to a capacity white audience in this very Hall. One hundred and fifty-seven years later, I will be channeling Douglass’s energy to an audience representing what may very well be the most racially diverse and multicultural demographic in all of the United States.
How important is it to you personally to use your talents as an artist/activist to share the legacy of Frederick Douglass and Juneteenth?
I believe that during this current paradigm, as the Earth moves under our feet, it is incumbent upon all artists to hone their tools of activism – performative, conceptual, traditional, experimental, radical, ritual, and otherwise – for it is our responsibility to continue telling the greatest story of all time . . . that we are one, that a house divided cannot stand, and that time is longer than anything. Live your life accordingly.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
The following: There is no question that cannot be answered, no problem that cannot be solved, no burden that cannot be lifted, no crisis that cannot be resolved, no yoke that cannot be broken, no wound that cannot be healed, no love that must remain unspoken, no dream that cannot be made real. UBUNTU!
Sincere thanks to you, Mr. De Shields, for making the time to share your uplifting thoughts and the background of this important show with our readers.
André De Shields is Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory plays Sunday, June 19, 2022, at 2 pm and 7 pm, at Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd., Flushing, Queens. For tickets (priced at $10-40), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.