Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Tristan André

Artist Profile by Audrey Fromson


Brother. Sun. Black memory cultural worker. Lover of his community. Yes, beloveds. You are that community. Tristan, an alum of the MFA Professional Actor Training Program at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a Southern multi-hyphenate artist whose credits include PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Life of Galileo, Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Leaving Eden, Twelfth Night and The Crucible, and DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner. Tristan is represented by Renée Glicker About Artists Agency and is a member of the Actors’ Equity Association. Peace and love to all.

Contact Information

About Artists Agency: (212) 581-1857

Full Interview Transcript


Fromson: I’d love to hear about your Genesis in theater to where you are and what you’re up to now.

André: My Genesis in theater involved me being a part of a couple of church plays. And that was my introduction into theater, into art. I had done several Easter plays and I had done a church production of a play called The Amen Corner, written by James Baldwin, when I was 18. I was 17, 18, around that time. And then I got accepted into a performing arts high school here in Nashville, which is NSA, Nashville School of the Arts. And that sort of insighted my trajectory as a now professional artist. I have not looked back. It’s a part of who I am. It’s a part of my world. And it definitely shapes how I see the world now still as a young artist in my late 20s doing this for way over a decade now. And when I was in high school, my junior year was my first year ever tapping into Shakespeare. I had always wanted to do Shakespeare, I’d always wanted to perform Shakespeare. Because poetry–I’ve always loved language. I’ve always loved literature. And so we have what’s called a Shakespeare competition here in Nashville. We were required in high school, I think around our junior year, to perform a Shakespeare monologue for the regional Shakespeare competition. Much to my surprise, I had won first place, and that was a beautiful surprise–I just was really loving the process. I really enjoyed the process and a teacher and mentor here in Nashville named John Royal coached me on my first Shakespeare monologue, which was Malvolio from Twelfth Night. I’d done the “Madam you have done me wrong, notorious wrong. Pray you peruse that letter by hand or phrase.” I had done that then, and I imagine it would be much different now because I’m in a different headspace and just a different space creatively. But anyway. I won first place regionally and had won second place going on to the second round. So I didn’t make it to Nationals. I was at the time, of course, inherently disappointed. But looking back, I’m like, you know, it was just amazing to just really see a young Tristin, to look back in retrospect and see a young Tristan who had such a promising journey ahead of him and then the second year, my my senior year of high school, we had to do the Shakespeare competition again, and I earned third place, I believe. And I didn’t go on to the second round, but that was okay, because I was again very, very proud of the process. Those Shakespeare competitions sort of lit a fire for my love for Shakespeare. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some experience doing the work. 

Fromson: So then after high school, did you know you wanted to be an actor? What was your path after you graduated?

André: I knew that this was going to be my life way before getting into and going to my performing arts high school. I just had never received what we know as formal training.  And so that was my first ever experience as a dancer, as an actor, receiving formal training. Because like many, Black, many–I will say many families who are working class families, sometimes, art, fine art, is not always accessible monetarily. And that can prevent young artists who have great passion, great talent, that can prevent them from imagining a life for themselves in art, as having a career as an artist. And so that sort of prevented me from ever having formal training–is that I grew up in a home where, you know, my family was doing what they could to support us. And so it wasn’t until I was able to get into the performing arts high school where I received my training and I worked so diligently and I worked very hard, because I loved it and I wanted to accomplish and succeed in all of my goals and my passions. And so from there forth, post high school, I got accepted into two programs, and I ended up going to University of Memphis, three hours west of Nashville, on I40. And I got a full scholarship ride there–theater scholarship, in their BFA program. And I graduated from there in 2016. And my time in college was incredible. It was then that I was really understanding and developing my voice as an artist. I began to understand the concept of what that meant…to really walk in that. And college is when I understood that…undergrad is when I understood that. And then from undergrad I had known that I wanted to go on to get my MFA, I knew I always wanted a Master’s. Because again, like I said, I’ve always loved the process of learning. And I imagined academia to be that space for me to be in process. And so I had gone on to–I got accepted into UNC Chapel Hill’s professional actor training program, their MFA program, and they are also attached to a Repertory Company, PlayMakers Repertory Company. And so when I finished graduate school in 2019, I was able to be in rep…that had been a dream of mine as well. I always imagined myself…I wanted to be in a repertory company, professional repertory company. So graduate school presented the opportunity for me to do that. And it was a lot of work. It was a lot of hard work. However, I did reap a lot of rewards from that and from there graduating in 2019, I’ve been out here doing the freelance artist thing. I moved to New York in 2019. I moved away because we are living in apocalyptic times. I’ve been able to work not only as an actor but also as a choreographer. As we slowly start to shift in this era, from this pandemic, which was unforeseen, I’ve been slowly but surely stepping my foot back into the theater this year, and it’s been good. And I’m finally at the place right now, where I’m settling. I’m still home in Nashville. But this first quarter of the year, this first and second quarter of ’21, I’ve been traveling a lot in and out of the city. So right now I’m planted just for a little bit until it’s time for me to, for me to go again. So yeah,

Fromson: You’re planning on moving back to New York, then?

André: Well I’m not quite sure where I’m headed after this. I know that in the fall, I’ll be in DC working. And I’m just gauging what is next, because things are slowly happening. And so with that, I’m moving at that pace as well. But I will be back in New York working again because that’s another home zone.

Fromson: At the panel you did in 2020 with other Black Shakespearean artists, you talked about unlearning a lot. I would love to hear about your experience within academia and reaping that experience but then also knowing when to challenge it and what that experience was like.

André: W.E.B Du Bois speaks about this in his work, The Souls of Black Folk, and the first chapter deals with double consciousness and what that means as a Black person, a Black civilian here in America…living with a double consciousness, always being aware of your race, and always being aware of how others are perceiving you, and and also having to having to exist in this space of polarity. Here I am my identity, my living as a Black person here in America, and what that culturally means, and also what is the culture of the actual institution in which you are existing in and so having to shift into that space as well. And so again, a part of my training, outside of what the institution was giving me was assigning myself the unlearning…culturally and socially what that meant, as a Black queer artist in spaces of academia, which are inherently built on a system that was not necessarily imagined for me or my community. And so becoming more and more aware of that as I work toward personal and artistic graduation. There was a lot of unlearning that I had to do. As far as understanding, like I said, My voice as an artist, my voice as a Black artist, my voice as a Black queer artist, learning to not apologize for for my gifts and what I bring to artistic and academic spaces. And that was something that as a young artist you sort of don’t necessarily know what that means. And I’m still a young artist, and I’m still learning, I have to always be a sponge and have to be receptive of information. But even as a teenager, and then transitioning into college, you just don’t really get it. You just want to act, you just want to dance, but you never really understand the politics of what this industry is actually. That’s been a lot of my journey…I was just thinking about this. Last night, I was like, “Wow man, the industry politics definitely penetrate you in a way where you just, you kind of fall in, you sort of fall out of why you do what you do.” And that can sort of taint you if you let it. And so a lot of my process, it’s been even in relation to my work in Shakespeare is that, you know, how can I reclaim…how can I take this material and bring it home for myself and not have to necessarily assimilate to an idea of what these institutions imagined for this particular work? Shakespeare is our most prominent example of that. And so, that’s been a lot of my work–how do I turn up the volume more and more for how I proceed? How I see this work, how I perceive the iambic pentameter? And how is that pulsating in my body? How is that pulsating through my voice? That is something that excites me when I enter into the work. Because if I were to enter into the work how many imagine Shakespeare and the like to be, then there’s really no use.

Fromson: There’s a myth or perceived notion that Shakespeare is an equalizer… Shakespeare is for everybody. But really it depends who “we” are or who the “everybody” is. I would be curious to know, if at points you’ve received resistance from directors or casting people who pigeonhole you into certain roles in Shakespeare. I’d love to hear about any obstacles set by other people (and if you’ve had those) and how you how you’ve navigated that.

André: I’m fortunate…in my experience, I can say consciously that I’ve not had to deal with any pushback. In fact, there was a moment in graduate school where we were going to do this series called Mobile Shakes. Some of my colleagues and I would work on Shakespeare for the summer for a semester, and we would rehearse that play, and we would take these plays to rehabilitation centers, to elementary schools, to libraries across the triangle in North Carolina. And there was a semester when I was asked to do Gloucester from Richard the third. And I had worked on Richard for a semester in my Shakespeare acting class, because we were asked in our second year of graduate school to choose a Shakespeare character, and we would work on those throughout the semester. And I had chosen a character that I never really imagined my Black queer body to be playing…Gloucester. But I said that’s even more of a reason why I need to do it. At the time I was like, I work on Ariel which of course I would someday love to play, but I knew I could do Ariel. I knew I could do Ariel well, but someone had planted a seed in me and said, “You know, I imagine you to be to be easily cast as Ariel, why don’t you do something that you wouldn’t necessarily do?” And so I said, you know what? let me do a play that I saw once didn’t necessarily enjoy. It’s not something that I’m really familiar with off of the dome. So I said, let me do Richard the third. I re-read the play, sat with it that summer before second semester of grad school, and I said yes, absolutely. I had this opportunity for me to really challenge myself and see where I can go with this. And throughout that semester I was asked to work on the character. And I will say, at the time, I was not in a space culturally where I could play that, because now…this is where it’s all coming back to me. So I was not in the space where I could play that character, because of how the cast was set up. I was the only Black person in the play. And so to me, at the time, when I was asked to play Richard the third, I immediately said yes for the Mobile Shakes. And then I had spoken with a mentor about it, because there was an event that had occurred that semester, where I didn’t culturally feel safe enough to play a character who is renowned as a villain. It was a non-Black cast. It was predominantly white cast. And I was playing Richard the third. And so my mentor at the time was like, “Tristan, no.” My internal clock was saying no, and my mentor at the time had helped me with that perspective. And so I had met with our artistic director and the admin, the whole team, or creative team, administrative team, and I told them how I felt at that time, and they were receptive to it. And they changed the play and I ended up playing Puck.

I ended up doing Robin Goodfellow, which honestly was necessary for me at that time…to be doing material that heavy, and to be to be the only Black person in that space, and to be dealing with what I was dealing with, not even on a creative level, but just culturally what I was dealing with outside of the artistic space…in academia…was not a safe space for me to be working on Richard the third. And so I can recall that being a very poignant time where I understood my artistic penchant was saying, “not right now. Not right now.” And, and as I speak with you about it, it’s even more empowering, as a Black artist, to know thyself, to know where you are in your space and time. And to say, no, simply no. And, though I love the work, I understand that there has to be a space, there has to be a company of people, to where the dialogue is being pushed further, and the reason why we are doing the work doesn’t feel stagnant, it doesn’t feel regressive. Everyone involved feels empowered to do this work, and we don’t have to shy away from the material, but rather, we can really allow the material to inspire us as a company versus, you know, us being in a space where we’re not artistically or culturally equipped or tooled to be doing work. And so I can look back and say that I’m grateful to have mentorship and to have had the wisdom and the insight to not do that at that time.

Fromson: What would your ideal project look like your ideal retelling of Shakespeare look like?

André: You know, that’s very difficult because often I find myself…the more seasoned I become in this sort of duality when it comes to Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare. Every time I sit, I sit with Shakespeare–I’m just always just physically and emotionally moved by how that language just carries you into a universe that feels large yet tangible. And I also think in 2021, we’re living in a world where there are seasoned young and established writers who are doing revolutionary work. I want to uphold an uplift, and Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere. Shakespeare has been here, and I just want to be aware all the time to uplift the voices of generations of writers who have not been produced in the ways that Shakespeare has been produced. And so, I just want to always be aware of that. I live in this space of polarity. And so I love Shakespeare, and I also understand the history of what Shakespeare has embodied to a certain community of people. My personal relationship to Shakespeare is that I’ll always love the text, but I also want to be aware…I have my own personal mission statement as an artist to always uplift and uphold and illuminate the voices of people who I come from: people who speak like me, people who look like me, people who share similar experiences to me. I feel that can exist in the world of Shakespeare, because Shakespeare was writing about a vast human experience. There is opportunity for us as a culture to really examine the works of Shakespeare and to also really support the newer works that are happening out here, newer young writers who are being revolutionary in their writing…writing creatively and uniquely about their experiences…which will birth so many worlds of storytelling. My dream is for us as a culture to acknowledge that…there is some power and use in tapping into what Shakespeare had written and left behind and also understanding that Shakespeare is not the chandelier of the American Theatre. There’s a beautiful essay by James Baldwin that really encompasses how I feel about Shakespeare. It’s called Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare. And in that Jimmy (Jimmy is my artistic compass. Jimmy is my…Baba. That’s my Jimmy). He’s my guiding spirit when it comes to art and creativity…when it comes to speaking to the times and how he does that through his art. And in short, throughout that essay, he says he couldn’t necessarily easily touch Shakespeare. There was nothing. He was like, “There was nothing that I had in relation to the prince of Denmark…what does the prince of Denmark have to do with a young poor Black queer boy living in Harlem, New York?” He says, “as I continued to sit with to be or not to be,” (he refers to Hamlet as “that brother”) “that brother was asking the same thing that I’m asking.” To be or not to be. That to me was a lightbulb for me saying, the work can be a little bit deeper than that. Because even with all of our cultural differences in the world, and our economic differences in the world, there is often that question of to be or not to be. And so that shifted my perspective in relation to Shakespeare. And like I said, I might have essentialized exactly what was said in that essay. However, the point is that what Jimmy was writing about in that essay definitely encapsulated my own personal journey with Shakespeare, going from loving Shakespeare to being resistant to Shakespeare, because understanding how in academia that is presented to us as a chandelier. And there is vast writing happening across the globe. Going from loving Shakespeare, to understanding how Shakespeare is weaponized in academia, and in throughout the industry, throughout our institution. And then understanding the dualities of Shakespeare…I acknowledge that Shakespeare has been used as a weapon. And also, here is what Shakespeare is writing about and was speaking to, and how can I tap into a Black queer boy from the south? Whenever I approached Shakespeare, how can I relate to what to be or not to be means to me? 

Fromson: This was an amazing interview. And thank you so much, again, for your time. Is there something that you’d wish I had asked you? Is there something you want to add? That’s on your mind?

André: I’ve stated everything and all my Shakespeare dream roles…I am going to play Ariel. And hopefully someday I’ll get to do Gloucester and maybe, maybe get to do Hamlet. All the things I never really imagined for myself in the past, but it is definitely mind over matter. I do want to add this: I’ve been sitting with this text by a dance scholar named Brenda Dixon Gottschild. She’s on faculty at Temple University, and she’s written and published several books on dance in the diaspora. And this book is titled The Black Dancing Body: A Geography From Coon to Cool. There’s a section of the book that’s titled “who’s there?”. And she really points to something that is so powerful. She speaks about the hegemonic nature of the dance industry and the body politics that come with the dance industry and the race politics that comes with the dance industry. And she speaks about Shakespeare and she talks about what it meant to be cast…all these roles in the world of ballet…the Romeo and Juliets of that world and the Midsummers and Black dancers not being cast particularly in the lead roles for these ballets. And so she spoke about in the early 2000s when Adrian Lester, the Black British actor was cast as Hamlet in 2000. Similarly to what Jimmy was speaking to in his essay, in this chapter of “who’s there?”,she speaks about race being an identity marker. It doesn’t necessarily determine the talent or what the person can bring to the role…and as we shift culturally and artistically, we begin to understand the value of how oftentimes casting a Black actor and or a person of color into a particular role…that can add value to something versus it being a regression. Economics, ultimately, what it boils down to. Capitalism, right? Economically, from a producer’s hat, they don’t want to take chances because the system is built on whiteness and how whiteness is currency. And so, Brenda Dixon Gottschild says, what does it mean for Adrian Lester to be a Black actor cast in the role of Hamlet? And when you unfortunately cannot cast Zayn Booker as your Romeo with the New York City Ballet, and so I’m essentializing what she’s saying, but who really is at the root there of when Hamlet says to be or not to be. That is the question? The first line of Hamlet is, “Who’s there?” And so there’s that double entendre where she’s asking the question and when Shakespeare asked the question of who’s there…it’s not accidental that’s the first line of Hamlet…that line is very intentional, when, when the question is then asked, Who’s there? Brenda Dixon Gottschild talks about the value of…what it means to not even take risk or chances…but really to see Black artists and to see artists of color and queer artists and gender expansive artists really explore these works that have been only seen through a capitalistic heteronormative gaze, and really expand that. That was something that was very powerful to me. That will always resonate with me. And I’ll always reference that work because I think that it’s something to really tap into when we decide as Black artists and artists of color to do this work that has been for centuries again, hegemonic. I would love to continue to explore that whenever I’m cast. I always wanted to be intentional…it always has to be the culture or even outside of just the performance itself, the culture outside of that has to have power and reasoning behind it. And so I think that is something that as an artistic culture globally and domestically, we should continue to have that conversation and to expand.

Fromson: I think that’s such a great and beautiful place to end on. Thank you so much.

André: Perfect. Thank you.

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