When Lillias White was announced as the new Hermes in Hadestown, there was a buzz as White became the first woman to play the role. André De Shields originated the Greek god, which earned him a 2019 Tony Award. T. Oliver Reid subsequently took over. White has taken that character in a whole new direction, saying, “I wanted to give my truth as a woman, as a mother, as a grandmother, as a caregiver."
It's a shift from how fans of Hadestown have seen Hermes played before. “André’s was more stoic, more matter-of-fact," as the actor put it, whereas White's Hermes isn't so neutral. Instead, she's infused the character with more emotion: "I think it’s because I am a mother, I am a woman. That's how I look at the role, and at how Hermes feels about Orpheus and about Eurydice and the Fates.”
The actor continues, “I'm just going with the flow of the emotion of it and my take on [the role] as a woman.” White did do some research on the deity, discovering his job as a sort of “gate-keeper” for the gods. As Hermes is the messenger of the gods and patron god of heralds, travelers, and others, White’s motherly approach to the role feels a natural extension to the character. Hermes deeply cares for two of the show’s lovers Orpheus and Eurydice who attempt the most dangerous journey: crossing between the world of the living and the dead.
In the show, Hermes is both narrator and, as White emphasizes, a parental figure to Orpheus. Another way she infuses the role with herself? A little flirting here and there. As White crossed the stage at a November performance of Hadestown, she stopped in front of ensemble member Alex Puette, and turned to the audience with a sly smile as she mimed a heart flutter.
White remembers the moment, and admits, “I'm a very flirtatious individual, and that’s the moment for me to give some love to the company and show Hermes as who she is.” It’s one of the small moments of humor that were sprinkled in throughout her performance that evening.
Another moment was in “Livin’ It Up on Top” when the company raises a glass to Persephone (played by Jewelle Blackman) whose return to the world above has brought back the spring. In that number that November evening, White made sure to drain her cup, finally lowering it with wide eyes and a whistling exhale that earned a chuckles and smiles all around. “Those are things that have developed as a result of me being who I am, and being in the moment. When it happened in the moment, I think we all got a kick out of it,” White says about that subtle performance decision. “So, it might change the next time you see it, I might be doing something else—howling or whatever." She continues, explaining that "it's just a moment of levity there where we are all with having wine, Persephone is there, and we're so happy that it looks like the sun is going to shine. It looks like we're going to have some balance—that's where all of that comes from.”
That performance was a memorable night at the theatre for White because of its audience. Sitting in the orchestra’s front rows was a school group. “They were so attentive and so invested in it. Their eyes were shining,” she recalls. It was clear the power the show had for them from the beginning of the performance as the students stood and cheered after the first number, prompting even other audience members to stand with them elsewhere in the orchestra. “It was remarkable. It just moved me deeply. And I'm very, very grateful,” she says.
After the final bows, White gave the students a shout out and became a bit teary-eyed as she told one student he looked like her son at that age. Those maternal parts of White that inform her performance onstage were on display still.
Turning to the whole audience, White made a call to action about the importance of bringing young people to the theatre, and the importance of educating young people in the arts. It’s a cause that’s very dear to the actor, who points to education and exposure as an inextricable part of what led to White commanding the Broadway stage and eventually winning a Tony Award.
“One of the things that has made me who I am is the fact that I grew up here in New York City. I went to public schools at a time when the arts were an essential part of the curriculum,” White shares, adding that when she was going to school in Brooklyn, it was “a time when there were people making music in their basements or garages. When children were allowed to have instruments and learn ceramics. We had May Day dances. There were times when the arts were essential to education.”
Unfortunately, with education budgets that keep on getting cut every year, and politicians indifferent to the next generation, those after-school programs are a thing of the past for many schools. “I think it's so important for us to get back to that, or to reinstate it so that children are exposed to art, to the museums!" says White passionately. "We have so many museums here, we have so many art-forms here that can be witnessed—at the Met, at Carnegie Hall, at the theatres, Off-Broadway puppet shows,” she lists off quickly. “It doesn't make sense to me that that every child is not being exposed and shown the power and the beauty of art.” For White, her career made that influence full circle as her own children grew up watching their mother at work on the stage: “To this day, they are still intrigued. Not directly involved, but they still appreciate the art.”
There’s more than appreciation for the arts at stake. The actor points out that there are the practical skills that come from learning about an artform, and even trying it out in school, such as discipline and hard work.
But the biggest reason for exposing you people to the arts? White replies, “It's important for them to have these experiences to fill up their spiritual, artistic, and humanistic coffers. It's important for them to get filled up with this kind of art where they're led to feel something, something that's alive and present. It’s important for their development as human beings.”
The actor also emphasizes it’s not just young people who should be directly involved in the arts—there’s power in arts education for everyone. “It makes you a better human being,” White says, “and that turns into a better member of society.”
See Lillias White perform a number from Hadestown below.