A show about a controversial Ben Vereen incident gains new controversy
By Lou Fancher
Art is rarely still or silent.
Even solid sculpture or noiseless, two-dimensional imagery can, due to technology or in a flash of change, shout out for new and altered attention. Multimedia art is no exception.
Such is the case with Los Angeles-based artist Edgar Arceneaux’s live-action play and art installation, “Until, Until, Until….” On display at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through March 25, the work is featured along with “Library of Black Lies,” Arceneaux’s large-scale labyrinthian sculpture that explores African-American history and memory through sugar-crystal glazed books. Three performances of Arceneaux’s play based on the installation, Feb. 22-24, are sold out.
“Until” is built around a notorious chapter in Vereen’s career, and has gained new attention thanks to another — the entertainer was recently accused of several instances of sexual misconduct. The presenter, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, has opted to continue with the project.
The installation and play are tied to a reconstruction of entertainer Ben Vereen’s controversial performance at Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration party in 1981. Appearing at the gala in blackface, the Broadway legend’s attempt to honor Bert Williams, the first African-American Vaudeville star, incurred outrage. People who saw the tape-delay television broadcast didn’t know that Vereen’s original agreement with ABC included a second act that condemned the exploitative practice of blackface performance. Vereen’s shuffling depiction aired, then cut to Donny and Marie Osmond’s saccharine version of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.” Vereen was vilified in the press; his career irreparably harmed.
Premiered in 2015 and portrayed by actor Frank Lawson in 2018 at YBCA, the updated, “emancipated” version of the seminal episode is seen from Vereen’s perspective. Included is the actor singing the poignant song, “Nobody,” while removing his stage makeup.
The sexual misconduct allegations made in January against Vereen — tied to his involvement in a 2015 production of “Hair” — came as the exhibit was being installed and thrust YBCA and the artists into a dilemma. If “Until” sought to explore and enlighten people about African-American history, collective memory and abuse of power, does presenting the work express solidarity or disregard for recent victims of sexual assault?
CEO Deborah Cullinan says YBCA exists to support art and thinking that defines extraordinary issues like the themes of invisibility, inequality and social injustice that anchor Arceneaux’s work.
“There’s deep value in having places where there’s a safe place to have complicated conversations,” she said. “If we don’t think imaginatively, we won’t change this world. We felt (by presenting the work) we could contribute to change we want to see in our democracy.”
Cullinan says her confidence that the work will help “move the conversation forward” lies in the women-run institution’s commitment to artists as provocateurs and to the pursuit of democratized, hard dialogue held in safe environments. A series of public talkbacks and discussion are planned. She notes the website and wall text have been updated with organizational and artists’ statements concerning the allegations.
Arceneaux says the news about Vereen caused soul searching. Ultimately, he chose to proceed without changes. The work represents to him an infinity loop: Williams in 1910, Vereen in 1981, Arceneaux in 2018. A key theme is the black man moving through history in an alignment jeweled by issues of white bias, invisibility and injustice. Vereen, he says, is a vessel; history proves redemption is elusive.
“People often prefer the lie, the scandal, but for us to change our future positively, we have to know our past,” he says. Later, he adds, “The #MeToo movement has created a critical mass that’s more significant than negation about a specific person. it’s become about the changes it’s producing. Not to say that what Vereen did wasn’t wrong and shouldn’t be acknowledged, but the movement itself is becoming more significant than the transgressors.”
Similarly, Lawson said after first questioning his continued involvement, he decided the work’s value lay not in Vereen’s real-life character or actions, but in portraying what he represented.
“The odds are stacked against you as a black man but you say, let me try,” he said. “Through my being a great person, intellect, entertainer, humanitarian, I will prove I’m a valuable member of society. Trying to wake up and get through the day without being discriminated against is one thing you have to deal with daily.”
As an actor, telling stories is his job. “They’re not always clean stories. They’re stories of villains and heroes; stories triumphant and stories of pain. Through the characters I play, it’s an opportunity to give people images to reflect on, to change they way they think and live.”
Arceneaux says his art is “light in the murkiness,” and “about confronting ourselves, elevating conversations, testing values and showing resilience and responsiveness. It’s corny, but I search for escape, for the possibility of hope and connection.”