Club Review: André De Shields’ “Black by Popular Demand (A Musical Meditation on How Not To Be Eaten by The Sphinx)”

August 9, 2021 | By

Three women emerged silently in low light from the back of the house; winding between café tables, eyes scanning the horizon, parasols aloft; the pianist and percussionist shimmered a soundscape for them as they made their way to the stage; everyone had a hat.

Freida Williams and André De Shields (Photo: Lia Chang)

André De Shields is not just a legendary artist—veteran Broadway performer, Tony, Drama Desk, Emmy, Grammy, and the Bistro Award’s Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award winner—he’s an entertainer. He’s actively aware of the power of theatricality to engage, inform, heal, and challenge, and he’s unhesitatingly ready to use it. De Shields has brought to Feinstein’s/54 Below an updated version of his Black By Popular Demand  concert. With its new expanded title, Black By Popular Demand (A Musical Meditation on How Not To Be Eaten by The Sphinx), it is loosely based on a diary of pandemic-era reflection and reconciliation, with Classical themes woven throughout.

De Shields’ own, equally spectacular entrance through the house with “None of Us Are Free” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Brenda Russell) immediately established the responsibility of community towards suffering. Hitting the call and response with his band at the end of the song, he took the helm the way James Brown would. His role shifted throughout the show, from conductor, preacher, dance partner, mentor, and at one point, emerging in spangled Americana like a prize fighter, whatever was needed to get the job done and say what had to be said. De Shields spoke about the return of live performance and compared it to Olympian gods walking among us, saying with full command of the room and no time for false modesty: “I’m taking my own breath away.” 

DeShields along with his “Three Queens” (l. to r.)Kimberly Marable, Lori Tishfield, Freida Williams (Photo: Lia Chang)

His “Three Queens” reigned supreme: Lori Tishfield, Hadestown castmate Kimberly Marable, and seasoned vocalist Freida Williams held down backing vocals, and each shone in their featured song or monologue. Marable showed engaging storytelling on “Sistah Girl” (De Shields): a meditation on pride, weather, and hair. “The Tragic Mulatto” (De Shields) was a song about in-between identity; Tishfield’s strong acting choices and generous presence made this about a real human being—and lifted the phrase beyond the trope in literature and films where the fate of characters with more than one heritage seem to embody everyone else’s agendas about race. The three were reminiscent of a Greek chorus, or The Fates, or the many places we see trios of women: powerful and a little mysterious, as if they were both witnessing the unfolding events during the evening, and maybe secretly causing them as well. 

Pretty much pitch-perfect throughout, the singers and De Shields navigated an epic medley starting with The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” and flying through recognizable hooks from The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (Ronnie Mack) and Tina Tuner’s version of “Proud Mary” (John Fogerty), “War (What is It Good For)” (Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong)—and more!—then settled into the steady pulse of “Mary Mack” (traditional children’s rhyme) and “Boogie Rap” (De Shields) with impromptu lyrics throwing a little audience-approved shade on Mitch McConnell and Marjorie Taylor-Greene. Music Director Sean Mayes created an almost seamless flow in his arrangements, with vocal harmonies that were complex and interesting, making his piano and Rudy Bird’s nuanced percussion sound as versatile and lush as a much fuller band.

Freida Williams (Photo: Lia Chang)

De Shields: “A spangled Americana” (Photo: Lia Chang)

De Shields asked us to consider “All Men Are Created Equal” in light of Sally Hemmings’ legacy as the enslaved mother of Thomas Jefferson’s children, while Bird’s military-style snare kept time. Almost as a balm for the pain of looking at this fundamental hypocrisy, “Shambala” (Daniel Moore, B.W. Stevenson) with its vision of cleansing and renewal in a better world, showed De Shields’ power to transform the room with joy. After giving the stage to his band and singers for a while, De Shields came back in full force with “The Reverend I.M. Randy,” sung by an inter-religious alter-ego who has equal love for his brothers, sisters, and non-binary friends, and may or may not have thrown out gems like “excessive Negrotude” and “Mariana Trench of prosperity.”  The rich alto and depth of experience of Freida Williams singing “Say You Love Me” (De Shields) anchored the evening as it was wrapping up; the singers and the band continued to sing while moving away from their mics and stepping back into the crowd, and the sound became acoustic and surrounded us in the audience.

“I cannot breathe,” De Shields said, alone on the stage. “I cannot breathe.” Eric Garner, George Floyd and many more, suddenly remembered in a heartbreaking bookend to what had sounded like a witty comment earlier. De Shields does nothing by accident and leaves his audience with pleasure and truth in equal measure.


André De Shields: Black By Popular Demand (A Musical Meditation on How Not To Be Eaten by The Sphinx) presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Aug. 3-7.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.

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