In the clip below, André tells the story of how he returned from doing The Full Monty in London and was ambushed by the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Artistic Director Alfred Preisser.
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When we started rehearsing, Garret Morris [the first Black actor on SNL] was looking to return to his homebase of theater. This was back in the day when most people honed their chops on the live stage and then graduated to television. Now there is a whole crop of people who are trained just for TV. Anyway, Garret was looking to return to the stage. Alfred thought, wouldn’t this be a great pair? Garret and Andre?”
So Garret shows up for the first day of the rehearsal. He does not show up for the second day of rehearsal. Because after so many years on television, he understands, “Oh, this is hard work.” The gentleman who ultimately plays Moustique is Kim Sullivan.
About the above photoshoot…
We’re in rehearsal, and The Village Voice comes. They want a picture of the show. Of course, we’re in rehearsals and we have no pictures yet. So the director tells me to take off my shirt and says, “I have some bamboo poles.” We go to the backyard of this school, the Harlem School of the Arts, and take this photograph. This is the essence of theater. You deal with what you have, and you create something larger. You start with nothing, and you turn that nothing into an idea which ultimately becomes the execution of a process. This photograph is the idea. “We need to get something out so that people know we’re working on something.” And then when they come to see what we’ve reared, the child is grown.”
The deeper story is that this photograph was taken during a power failure. Maybe two thirds of the Eastern Grid went down. That photograph was taken after that outage after I walked down 39 flights of stairs, and walked from 43rd and 10th to 145th and St. Nicklaus. And then walked home, and walked up 39 flights.
Here is the review the Village Voice came out with:
The Classical Theater of Harlem clearly doesn’t balk at theatrical challenges. Last season’s program included Genet’s The Blacks and Witkiewicz’s The Crazy Locomotive, two innovative landmarks that defy the cookie-cutter model of playwriting favored by today’s tremulous artistic directors. The company’s fall season features Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain, a sprawling poetic epic that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, utopia and political debacle. The play takes the form of a hallucination, where the plot is routinely subverted and characters die only to be reborn again. It’s more than a little puzzling, and the production, directed by Alfred Preisser, was understandably having trouble finding its footing during an early preview.
The story revolves around Makak (played with gusto by veteran André De Shields), a prophet-like figure whose longing to return to his ancestral homeland leads him on a visionary journey suggesting the philosophical plight of the African diaspora. The protagonist is haunted by a white phantom (Délé), imprisoned by a mulatto corporal (Michael Early), and bonded to his sidekick Moustique (Kim Sullivan), who both mercenarily exploits and spiritually rescues him. Walcott constructs a universe that has enormous theatrical vitality though little dramatic thrust. Symbolic meaning serves as a substitute for coherent action.
Preisser elicits crisp performances from his cast, but the production never establishes a disciplined rhythm. The pacing is erratic, with bursts of singing and dancing that serve mainly as temporary distractions from the narrative confusion. A razzle-dazzle approach may keep an audience in their seats but it doesn’t unlock the theatrical meanings of a literary work that speaks in the coded language of dreams.
The above article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 7, 2003
Derek Walcott was very impressed with our production, and he came to see it often. His native tongue is French; he’s from Trinidad and Tobago which was colonized by the French. When it closed, he gave me a signed copy of the play in its original language (above). Years later, I would perform at a tribute to him at El Museo del Barrio. It was just before he died.