We’re thrilled to honor the Broadway legend André De Shields on Feb. 6 at the 10th Annual GMHC Cabaret and Howard Ashman Award for his energetic activism and wisdom as an Afro-Queer man and long-term HIV survivor.
In advance of the Cabaret, De Shields talked with us about what it means to him to receive the Howard Ashman Award, just after marking his 77th birthday and concluding a star turn as Ben Loman in the acclaimed Broadway production of Death of a Salesman, in which the Loman family is played by a Black cast.
“I must wear the award as a badge of courage and say to those individuals who think that either the disease is the problem or those of us who’ve prevailed against the disease are the problem: Your prejudice is the problem. That you continue to criminalize this disease is the problem and is the crime,” he says.
De Shields, who went public about his HIV status in 2020, is serving as a spokesperson for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s advocacy campaign, HIV is Not A Crime. Even with medications now that effectively prevent HIV transmission, there are still 30 states with outdated, misguided laws that criminalize HIV exposure and disproportionately affect people of color, which increases HIV stigma and discourages testing and treatment.
For the Cabaret, GMHC has invited a constellation of stars to perform from De Shields’ orbit over his stellar career. Fittingly, Broadway star Javier Muñoz, himself a Howard Ashman Award honoree, a person living with HIV and a fierce advocate, will present De Shields with the award.
After creating the title role in The Wiz on Broadway in 1975, De Shields went on to wow audiences and win awards in the original Broadway productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Full Monty, Impressionism, and Hadestown, where he won both a Tony and a Grammy for his performance as Hermes.
In two of De Shields’ most famous roles, Hermes and Ben Loman, he plays savvy yet mercurial guides between different realms. In this wide-ranging conversation with our community relations director, Krishna Stone, he similarly connects what he’s learned about surviving and thriving through HIV and other pandemics with the healing and survival of our planet.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Krishna Stone: What does the Howard Ashman Award mean to you?
André De Shields: When asked to accept this award, I had to sit down with myself, because the term ‘survivor’ has so many resonances for me. Yes, I’m a survivor. What is it about my point of view or my stature in life that makes me deserving of this opportunity? And how do I embrace this award from a personal point of view, because I had not collaborated with Howard Ashman? Ah, I thought, it’s because I’m still standing, and standing strong.
I was a fan of Howard Ashman’s work–and to find out that his brilliance had been taken down by this infection did hit me personally, because it seemed [early on] as if the arts world was being ravaged and no other entity was being touched. Now in retrospect, that wasn’t true, but it was our brave artists falling first in the heat of battle.
The circle is now being made whole, because in the fight against HIV there was hardly ever a Black presence. It’s not because Black people were not affected, but even in a pandemic somehow, there’s racial differentiation. So, here’s my opportunity to say: I was there at the beginning, I’ve lasted through the meantime, and I am here to say to the world that we are one.
I think that’s the most important message that we can embrace right now. We are more than a village, more than a community, more than geopolitical dogma. We are a planet of one humanity, and we need someone to speak from that point of view. If I hadn’t been chosen, I would have volunteered.
The epidemic affects all races and ethnicities. But there is still stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS. How do we address that?
The stigma that surrounds HIV and AIDS is not self-generated. It comes from those individuals who are using this disease as another reason to rationalize their bias, their prejudices. To them I say: Get right about your feelings. Stop projecting them onto us or onto any group so you can feel somehow superior. The very fact that you work from a position of hate, of disdain for others is the evidence that you’re not superior.
You would do better to collaborate with those of us who’ve had the experience of surviving a pandemic–and you would better understand the pandemic we are currently experiencing [of COVID-19]. And here’s that word again–together.
You’ve said the word ‘survivor’ holds many resonances for you in your journey for over 40 years living with HIV. Could you talk about that intersectionality?
I am thankful that I have lived as long as I have, and I’m looking forward to living even longer, because I am experiencing the intersection of history and evolution.
If we can stop being nostalgic about the past and cultivate a nostalgia for the future, we’ll understand that the paradigm we are standing in now is an opportunity–and the opportunity is this: Everything we’ve done as a species–regardless of the many wonderful things we’ve achieved–the aggregate of our efforts over these many thousands of years is destroying the planet. What we have to do is see that we reflect what is happening to the planet–and we also are one of the major causes.
It isn’t individuals’ bad actions that have caused these different diseases and pandemics, but it’s because we haven’t respected nature’s boundaries. If we destroy the veil between what is wild in nature and what is meant for husbandry by human beings, then husbandry is the covenant we’ve breached. Husbandry is the art of caring for–and we have not cared for nature.
In the process of nature caring for herself, she’s been infected, and now she’s getting rid of the virus, which happens to be humanity. If we could get our heads wrapped around that, we could also understand that we could be the medication.
I’m thinking about the losses from these pandemics and healing our earth. At 77, you have decades of living and working and loving and being–and you’ve lost your own loved ones from HIV and other causes. Could you share some thoughts on coping with loss?
Loss is a part of living, but the grave is not the purpose of life. We all think that life is short, so let’s get as much of it in as we can. But that’s the beginning of stress, of frustration and of differentiation, because of the idea that some of us deserve more life and to live longer than others–and that some of us deserve less of a purpose on this spaceship mother earth.
That is exactly against what nature teaches us. Every element is part of the whole, and if you allow the collaboration among the elements, everyone does well. It should be that the longer you live, the better you do—not the longer you live, the less you are cared for.
I’ve done my best to be part of the equation of generosity and gratitude, which is the fuel of the universe. The universe is generous to us, and we must be grateful for that generosity. My life is expanding. That’s the equation: The longer you live, the more your life expands–and not the longer you live, the more your life shrinks.
Does that include being of service?
I recently encountered two young men at GMHC waiting to be tested, and I could see how afraid they were. How do we work with the shame, stigma, and homophobia that can discourage getting tested, even now with very effective HIV medications?
Even if the situation is not HIV, we are afraid of the unknown. But if you avoid a difficulty or a problem, it looms larger. It seems to grow to the point where it is insurmountable. If you approach the problem, you’ll ultimately understand that it is porous. You can actually pass through it to the other side.
So, get tested. Do I have COVID-19? Get tested. Do I have influenza? Get tested. Am I HIV positive? Get tested and find out what indeed is living in your body.
What would you say to folks recently diagnosed with HIV?
If you test positive, do not interpret it as fatal. Interpret it as: I now have to find out what information is going to help me to live in spite of this unfortunate discomfort, the HIV infection. You want to know. Then, ask the next question: What do I need to do to remain healthy? Because that is what surviving means, and you can turn to GMHC and other places for support.
I have an infection, but I can learn how to continue my life in a healthy, positive way so the infection will be subdued. It won’t vanish, but if you take your medications so that the virus is undetectable, then you are no longer infectious–and you can live to be double 7s!
And then, after the viral load is undetectable and you can wake up with a smile on your face and a positive point of view, do the same for somebody else. Take them by the hand and say: Life without regret is possible, even if you are infected.
What does your HIV diagnosis mean for you now?
I am here today at the beautiful age of 77 years on the earth planet, because I was so fortunate to have been infected with HIV. It’s made me pay attention to why I’m on this planet and, instead of answering to my material wants, I know it’s healthier to answer to my spiritual needs.
I’m not talking about religious dogma. I’m talking about my relationship with other humanity and my relationship with the world that existed before I was here and that will continue to exist once I am gone. It has to be a symbiotic relationship, one that’s sympathetic and empathic, so that we respect our differences, and we use them to make us more whole, with everybody stronger and more united.
Every difficulty, every instance of a disease is disguising a blessing–information that you need to survive, thrive, prevail … and live gloriously.
What you’ve shared is so moving and so healing. What’s next for you after Death of a Salesman?
I’m going to be at Joe’s Pub on February 6, and I’m going to be receiving an award, but I’m just the representative. The people who are going to fill Joe’s Pub and make it an overflowing celebration of life all deserve awards, because we understand that if we aren’t responsive to this new world yearning to be born, if we don’t become doulas for this pregnant paradigm and practice our best midwifery, then all the awards in the world won’t matter.
Do you have anything else to share with our supporters?
Yes. Donors, dig deep in your pockets. No donation is too small, nor too large. Give what you can, and receive what you need. That’s husbandry. All Cabaret proceeds benefit GMHC’s lifesaving services for people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. To buy tickets, donate, and see who’s performing: www.gmhc.org/gmhc_events/cabaret2023/.