André De Shields On Giving ‘Cats’ A New Life And Telling Stories at the Moth

In addition to playing Old Deuteronomy in a radical reinterpretation of 'Cats' inspired by drag balls, De Shields is being honored by the Moth as Storyteller of the Year.

André De Shields (seated at center) with the cast of Cats: The Jellicle Ball. Marc J. Franklin

Like June, André De Shields is bustin’ out all over these days, busily negotiating a variety of ups, downs and all-arounds. Where once you could find him in the hellish underworld of Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown you’ll soon be able to see him in Heaviside Layer of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic Cats.  

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But the evening of Tuesday, June 4th, will find him at The Lighthouse on the Chelsea Piers, where he’ll be honored as Storyteller of the Year at the Moth Ball, a gala to benefit the Moth, the nonprofit that has been staging storytelling events since 1997. Past Storyteller of the Year recipients include Martin Scorsese, Salman Rushdie, Anna Deavere Smith and David Byrne.

Then from the Moth Ball to the Jellicle Ball. Starting June 13th, De Shields will rule the roost when Cats: The Jellicle Ball—a reimagining of Lord Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical of T.S Eliot’s 1939 collection of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—opens at PAC NYC for a projected one-month-run that may make its way Broadway. Inspired by the ballroom culture that crossed NYC a half-century ago and was documented in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, it’s staged as an immersive competition by both Zhailon Levingston (who directed Adrienne Warren’s Tony-winning performance as Tina Turner) and Bill Rauch (who directed Bryan Cranston’s Tony-winning as LBJ in All The Way). To maintain the Ballroom sweep, two different choreographers—Arturo Lyons and Omari Wiles—are also being pressed into service.

De Shields now describes himself as “a student of the Moth tradition,” having been recruited by the Moth’s former artistic director, Catherine Burns, after she caught him in Hadestown. De Shields won a Tony in 2019 for his Hermes, and his narration of the tragic, don’t-look-back love story of Orpheus and Eurydice made it clear he would be good at Moth matters.

“That’s a concept that every individual is on a journey, living a story,” De Shields tells Observer. “Not many of us know how to relate this to the other demographics, but Mrs. Burns has developed a system that allows and encourages the individual to reveal how he is doing on his journey. The Moth brings us to the humanistic conclusion that we’re all more alike than we care to admit.”

André De Shields telling as story at the Moth’s event at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 25, 2022. Lia Chang 2

The Moth has had an NPR show, The Moth Radio Hour, since 2009, and in addition to live shows at venues both national and international it has a weekly podcast as well. But it wasn’t till April of 2022 that The Moth did an evening of storytelling—featuring one told by De Shields—at a legitimate house: the Walter Kerr Theatre where Hadestown is ensconced. 

“When Iris’ Eyes Were Smiling” was the title of De Shields’ offering. “Iris was my third eldest sister, who died of cervical cancer in 1977,” he explains. “We were spiritual twins. She wanted to be a performer almost as much as I did. I became a performer, and she lived her life vicariously through me, choosing to marry and have children instead of performing. But she would take me out to the neighborhood parties, and we would do all the late ’50s-early ‘60s dances—the chicken, the locomotion, the watusi. I would be her partner, and we would win contests. The beauty of the story is that she was my greatest supporter and she never saw me perform.” 

De Shields has been spending most of June rehearsing for the strange second-coming of Cats with two directors and two choreographers. “For this particular production,” he notes, “that’s exactly what we need. We need different perspectives because the story now is so intergenerational. In the ballroom culture, each person comes from a house, like the House of La Beija that Crystal LaBeija founded.” The House of LaBeija, like the houses in Paris is Burning, provided a sense of belonging and community to Black and Latinx queer and trans people who fought to reinvent and celebrate themselves after being systematically excluded from society.

The House of LaBeija was founded in 1968, but Cats: The Jellicle Ball is “solidly in the 21st century,” says De Shields. “That’s the only reason why we can superimpose the ballroom culture on top of it because of what we know about the nature of cats. We love them because they are so inscrutable. They can be from heaven, or they can be from hell. They’re independent, and they’re sexy. All of that is what this community claims.”

André De Shields in rehearsal for Cats: The Jellicle Ball. Marc J. Franklin

Unsurprisingly, De Shields makes a majestic old mentor of Old Deuteronomy, searching through the feral cats who live in the alleys for one worthy enough to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. He descends to the earthbound ballroom houses in order to choose the individual who deserves the redemption the Heaviside Layer represents. (Don’t they make Betty Buckleys anymore?)

In that role in the original production, Ken Page returned to earth to investigate in a massive Mack Truck tire. He and De Shields were the male contingent in two Broadway productions (1978 and 1988) of the Fats Waller revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’. They also co-starred in the original 1975 Broadway production of The Wiz—Page playing The Lion and De Shields playing The Wiz.

“I haven’t had that conversation with Ken about my stepping into his very large shoes as Old Deuteronomy, but we’ve been friends for many years,” De Shields says. “I feel his blessing on me, and one of my inspirations is to make him proud of having passed this role on to me—especially now that the entire process is being claimed by a different generation and a community of performers who can take it beyond its traditional T.S. Eliot starting point.

“Not only is this new production going to be animated and frenzied and busy with ballroom choreography,” he adds, “it’s going to be beautiful. That’s the most important ingredient.” 

After a four-year tour-of-duty, does he miss being in hell—er, Hadestown—anymore? Some people don’t even know he’s left and consorting with cats. He’s the one who leads off the television ad with an expansively welcome to Hadestown flourish. “Which is lovely,” he allows, “because I get shekels for that. It’s the only annuity I have from Hadestown. The other problem that creates: People come up to me—often!—and say, ‘Oh, I love you in Hadestown.’ When I say, ‘Oh, when did you see it?’, they said, ‘Oh, I didn’t see it. I saw you—in the television ad.’”

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André De Shields On Giving ‘Cats’ A New Life And Telling Stories at the Moth