Christmas has pagan roots, in holidays designed to illuminate the darkness of winter and keep the gathering cold at bay with the warmth of love and celebration.
Which can be tough to manage in the best of times. Our COVID-19 Christmas, with so many people isolated, careers wrecked, bank accounts emptied, is even harder.
You need a light to guide you.
On top of everything, 2020 has been almost entirely devoid of live performance: no concerts, no theater. Unless you were lucky enough to catch one at the beginning of the year, and I was. Singer Anaïs Mitchell took the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it into a thoughtful musical, “Hadestown.” Last February, just before the world shut down, my wife and I met our boys in New York City and we saw it on Broadway.
In the tale, lovely Eurydice goes down to Hell to live with Hades, king of the underworld, and her lover Orpheus tries to bring her back, with a helping hand from Persephone, Hades’ wife. Her absence brings the winter; her return, the spring.
The star of the show is veteran Broadway actor André De Shields, and he has one line that kept returning to my mind as the days grew shorter, colder and grimmer.
“The world ... came back ... to life!”
De Shields won the best actor Tony in 2019 for his role as Hermes, the narrator. I got it into my head that if I talked to him, he might have something helpful to say.
“During this pandemic, I hear more people choosing non-material language to express how they’re feeling,” said De Shields, also a longtime presence in Chicago theater. “People talk about their spirit now. People talk about empathy. People talk about compassion. Because we are in such dire straits, those ideas, those emotions, come right to the surface. That’s what performing artists are about all the time, especially those of us who work on stage. The audience very seldom says, ‘I’m here because I have a problem I need a solution to. I have a question I have no answer to. I have a crisis, a burden I want lifted. I have a yoke I need broken.’ That’s exactly why they come, exactly why an experience like ‘Hadestown’ reverberates so deeply and long-lastingly for people who experience it.”
De Shields exudes confidence, dignity, and razor precision. I got a contact dose of courage just seeing him perform.
“I was so appreciative of finally getting the opportunity to play a character that could make use of the erudition I carry in my tool box,” he said. “I’ve always been the Magical Negro, for which I have no regrets — ‘The Wiz,’ ‘Ain’t Misbehaving,’ ‘The Viper.’ The old guy who can dance well in ‘The Full Monty.’ All those things, just facets, the uncut diamond I’ve been trying to polish, lo these 74 years.”
His persona is, in one sense, protective.
“I’ve spent all my conscious effort becoming an intelligent Black man for all the reasons you can imagine,” he said. “I was told, as a young man, I wasn’t intelligent. I was the scum of the Earth. My beacon was always education, education, education. In terms of getting that education, my decision was to learn the language of my oppressor better than my oppressor could speak it. So I could always understand what was being said to me, and I could make myself un-der-stood.”
Broadway is shut down, but De Shields keeps going.
“One reason I haven’t caved into distress, paranoia, frustration, is because I’ve been able to continue working during the pandemic,” he said. “I’ve been able to work because of my perspective. Every performer at some point in that performer’s career will experience the irrelevancy of his resume. That’s when it becomes hard to work. When your resume becomes irrelevant, you must pull out your life experience. That’s what gets you over a hump like this. I’ve continued to work — doing master classes, doing keynote addresses, more often than not with young people frustrated because they didn’t get an opportunity, after investing their four years in undergraduate school, to walk across the stage in mortarboards and receive a diploma.
“So I become the griot” — a term for a West African storyteller — ”with the information to calm them. Because it’s my responsibility, as a septuagenerian, to be able to explain to millennials, if you will, how we got from the past to the present, and how we are going to get from the present to the future. That’s the work of a griot.”
What does he tell them?
“I say to them ... every complication, every difficult problem with no exceptions is disguising a blessing. It is for us to use opportunities, locked down, shut down, to approach the problem and discover the blessing.”
I hadn’t heard anyone before suggest 2020 is a blessing.
“Forget the old norm,” he said. “It doesn’t exist any longer. Evolution goes forward, never in reverse, if you live long enough. This is a rare moment. This is a unique moment, an intersection of history and evolution. This is the United States of America, finally having to deal with the sun at noon when it has eaten its own shadow. And what did we discover? Systemic racism, homophobia, misogyny, economic disparity etc. etc. etc.”
He referred to Jacob wrestling with an angel.
“He didn’t cower, he stood and said, ‘Why are you here?’ He invited the problem in, offered a cup of tea, and then asked the important question: ‘WHY ... are ... you ... here?’ And the problem will reveal itself.”
There was much more to our conversation, but that will have to do.
In “Hadestown,” they sing: “It’s true the Earth must die. But then the Earth comes back to life.” And it will, in just a few months. All we have to do is hang on until then, guided by whatever spark we can conjure ahead of ourselves. Merry Christmas.