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An experimental play reinterprets Ben Vereen’s controversial 1981 homage to Bert Williams

Frank Lawson stars as Ben Vereen in Edgar Arceneaux's
Frank Lawson stars as Ben Vereen in Edgar Arceneaux's "Until, Until, Until..."
Edgar Arceneaux

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At Ronald Reagan's televised 1981 inaugural gala, Johnny Carson took the mic to introduce an unusual performance by the African American Broadway legend, Ben Vereen.

The audience at the gala witnessed a two-act performance by Vereen. In the first act, he sings in blackface. In the second, he wipes off the makeup in protest. 

But the TV audience only saw the first act. Vereen’s message, which was supposed to demonstrate the exploitive nature of blackface minstrelsy, consequently backfired — badly.

African American activists denounced Vereen’s performance, and his career and reputation took a huge hit.

Now, artist Edgar Arceneaux is hoping to clear the record with the first piece he’s written for the stage: It’s called “Until, Until, Until…” 

The play is based on the unseen footage from Vereen’s second act, and it investigates the way that media can alter our perception of art and history. Arceneaux recently visited The Frame's studio to chat with host John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On first learning about Ben Vereen's performance:

It was part of a documentary that I was passively watching at home. I looked away from the TV and I came back and there was somebody in blackface doing a minstrel show. I was like, Man, what is this? Then the camera opened up wide and it said: "Ronald Reagan's Inaugural Gala — Ben Vereen." I was like, What is this? But I didn't realize how fortunate I was because I actually saw the beginning and the ending of the piece. The ending of the performance is so moving and so touching, but combining that with the surreal quality of seeing a blackface performance in front of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and 25,000 Republicans — I just was never able to forget about it.

On the performance as seen by the gala's attendees:

He had practically gotten a standing ovation. The performance truly is powerful. It is, in my opinion, one of the most important performances of the 20th Century that almost no one knows about. Being able to bring it back into the present serves a double function.

Frank Lawson stars as Ben Vereen in Edgar Arceneaux's
Frank Lawson stars as Ben Vereen in Edgar Arceneaux's "Until, Until, Until..."
Edgar Arceneaux

On when he realized he would turn Vereen's story into a work for the stage: 

I was at a kid's birthday party ... standing in line to get a hotdog, and I look over and I see Ben Vereen there. I'd been commissioned by this organization in New York, Performa, to direct a performance. But I didn't know what I was going to do. So it was really a moment of serendipity that brought me and Ben Vereen into the same room. So I went and I shook his hand and he was very gracious and very welcoming up until I mentioned the performance of "Nobody" at Ronald Reagan's [gala]. Then his whole demeanor changed. I didn't at the time know why, because I didn't know the backstory. I didn't know that the second part of the performance was edited out. I didn't know about the impact that it had on his life and that it was a trauma that he still carried with him. 

On how he made the audience a part of the performance:

I decided I was going to try to tell the story in a way which wasn't a reproduction of history. But, How do I tell it in the way in which this historical moment is coming into the present? What makes it about right now? The way in which I decided to tell the story was from the perspective of how Ben remembers it, which is a series of traumas. So the audience in many ways is symbolic of how Ben sees himself perceived by others. So throughout the run of the play, the audience is slowly being drawn into the show where they realize they're not actually watching it, but they are what the show is about.  

Edgar Arceneaux's "Until, Until, Until..." will be performed at the Susanne Vielmetter gallery from June 2-4. An accompanying exhibition of Arceneaux's work is at the gallery through July 1.

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