“Until, Until, Until . . . is a play accompanied by a multi-media video installation. It’s an interrogation of the facts and misinformation surrounding the controversy about the famous 1981 televised performance by Broadway actor and dancer Ben Vereen, that was part of the Ronald Reagan inauguration celebration. Playwright and Director Edgar Arceneaux is a Los Angeles-based visual artist and sculptor, whose art ties historical events to current issues. I had a chance to discuss the show and its place in the “Library of Black Lies,” which is a concept Arceneaux inaugurated, as well as the title of a work by him on exhibit during the play’s run.
Toba Singer: How did you become interested in Ben Vereen’s story?
Edgar Arceneaux: It was mostly serendipity. I had caught a portion of Ben Vereen’s White House performance in a documentary on African-American art in 1998. It showed the beginning, and a section of the end. At the time, I found it deeply moving, arresting. Over the years, I would try to find it again online, especially with the advent of YouTube. There was mention of it in an interview in early 2000. When Performa in New York commissioned me to create something for their upcoming biennial, it coincided with me crashing a five-year-old kid’s birthday party that I hadn’t been invited to.
Ben Vereen was seated at a bar at the party, which was at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles. Naturally, the Reagan White House performance memory popped back up. So I approached Ben and said I was a big fan. He was very gracious and we began to talk. So I asked him, “What about this Bert Williams performance in blackface at the White House?” I saw him physically shrink into his chair. So I backed off. I hadn’t realized that the sculptress, Karon Davis, whose son’s party it was, was actually Karon Vereen Davis, Ben’s daughter, and was married to the artist Noah Davis, who has since died, and whom I knew.
I met with Ben a month later. He welcomed me into a very large house, but made a point of saying, “I don’t live here; I just keep my things here.” It looked to me as though he lived there: there was a photo of him as Chicken George, along with other memorabilia. He showed me the video of the entire performance, and I saw how the misunderstandings about his intentions were introduced by ABC’s editing of the footage. I was also struck by its impact on him and the shunning he experienced in the Black community. Just in the way he introduced me to his home and the video itself, conveyed a flicker of his vulnerability. You could see what it is like to be misunderstood and thirty years later still be paying the price. That’s when I first saw that there was something in this for the stage.
Ben sat on floor in front of the TV. “Look at what I used to be able to do,” he said to me as his shoulders slumped slightly. I wondered “When does this performance begin? Does it originate in 1910, 1890, 1760? How far back, over how long a period in history has this dance been performed?” As I was leaving, Ben said to me, “Never let this happen to me again.” I said “I promise.” Experiencing him experiencing this episode over again influenced how I told the story. So the play is about how America came to know what really happened, and how the widespread misinterpretation of Ben’s motives impacted his life.
TS: What was at the heart of Ben Vereen’s performance that you wanted to capture?
EA: There’s a fundamental question you have to ask when something from the past reasserts itself in the present. Why is this singular episode standing out? I wanted to tell it as Ben Vereen remembers it, as a series of traumas. All the characters are built around a basic principal: everyone and everything in my dreams is me. In the play, we’re putting them in Ben Vereen’s body, whether they are from the past, present or future. The actor Frank Lawson plays all the male characters; there’s an actress who plays Marie Osmond, because in the White House performance, the camera cut away from Ben to Donnie and Marie Osmond singing “For Once in My Life,” and the key element in the ending of Ben’s interpretation of Bert Williams was never seen by the television viewing audience.
We see Ben Vereen at dress rehearsal in 1981, and again when the show ends. Then we move into 2015 when I learn Ben’s story, and then we switch back to the ’82 performance and go to video of Bert Williams’ 1910 rendition of what Ben performed at the White House.
TS: What is your attitude toward Ben’s use of blackface?
EA: Blackface is a symbol in America, a symbol people see through a moral lens, but Ben Vereen didn’t see it that way, so we took the blackface out of its moral context and pushed it to the side, in order to tell the story without that moral lens. Every cliché has an underlying meaning. That’s what we are trying to locate in this work.
TS: What was your experience working with Ben Vereen?
EA: My collaboration with him was complicated by difficulties with his manager. She was adamantly trying to control my work. Initially, Ben Vereen was going to play himself. That is when she got involved, and tried to limit the performance rights. At that point, I had to release myself from the restrictions she was imposing. As much as I regretted losing Ben, I realized that his absence freed me to write the story from the perspective I’ve just described. Ironically, when he walked away is when I could do what I wanted. His manager mistreating me gave me a focus. I was now able to make a clear distinction between the historical moment and the man himself, and that’s exactly how I prefer it because I respect him and his work, and don’t want to strip him of his autonomy as an artist or as a human being.
If the story redeems his reputation, all to the good, but we are doing this play to set the record straight, historically. We are doing it in such a way as to present the archetypal past and the transient present. It is a fact of life that things come up that we thought were done with, but then here they are for us to confront.
TS: What are you hoping the audience will take away?
EA: I hope to pose the question: “What do we do with a past that troubles us, that is a part of who we are and which we can’t deny, though we may not necessarily want that past as part of our life script. On an audience level, this happened, it had an impact, even if it was or wasn’t what Ben intended. We are asking, “How do you feel about that?”
Why do we hold funerals and build memorials to past? There’s the inherent contradiction that you can’t remember something until you first forget it. When something is clean and finite, you can put it away, but you can’t put this away because it’s not clean and finite. That’s what great art does: it looks at questions that are not clean and finite. Blackface was a question for me personally: Can I tell this story? Can I, how do I, tell this story to you, who think you already know all there is to know about blackface? As an artist, I try to take on symbols that have been rendered cliché, and challenge myself by trying to show the viewer that their bloat can mean that they are pregnant with wisdom. Blackface is such a symbol.
TS: Can the unmet demands and needs of Black people be won strictly in the arena of Black nationalism, or do post-1960s social changes augur for a single-class multi-national approach rather than a multi-class Black nationalist approach?
EA: There are some inalienable needs that are common to all working people: freedom of speech, the right to feed and educate ourselves, get a job, raise a family, live in a safe community, have a justice system free of corruption, enjoy equity, openly communicate and share ideas, practice beliefs and religion freely, have a social safety net, form unions, check the power of big money, halt what divides us, namely poverty, and the lack of education. Of the several many forces that polarize us as working class folks, big business and government stand out. And this is where Ben Vereen weighs in. For him, his White House performance was a moral outcry: Hey Ronald Reagan, you’re chipping away at our hard-won rights. Keep it up and America will look like it does right now. So in that context, an inequity exists, tagged “The Negro Problem.” If democracy is genuine, then Black people should be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. So the conversation revolves around equity. Where does Ben Vereen fit into it? It’s the age-old question for artists: Are we participating, or commenting? What’s our role? He saw Black minstrels as the Black philanthropists of their era. Others don’t.
TS: Ben Vereen admitted to and apologized for his sexist and sexually manipulative behavior toward actresses in the Venice, Florida, production of “Hair,” which he directed. What impact do you expect his actions and apology will have on how audiences approach “Until, Until, Until . . .”?
EA: His apology, in its candor and directness, may be why his confession didn’t have the shelf life that others did. That fact doesn’t make what happened any better, but an outward facing conversation did go a long way.
As producers of this piece, we have to think about what our artistic responsibility and ethical burden is. Do we have a [related] responsibility to the show and by what criteria? My production company is forty percent women, many of them from other countries. The idea is to exhibit a variant of best practices in a dignified way.
Many themes are suggested by The Library of Black Lies, a work by me that is part of the exhibition that will be mounted by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts during the show’s run. “Until, Until, Until . . .” critically engages with the legacy of invisibility, abuse of power, heroes we inherit, it interrogates that, and how sometimes cycles of powerlessness reassert themselves in the victims of a similar scenario. Looking at a big window of time, the cycle of Ben’s performance is reemerging and disappearing. We had to figure out how to engage the audience as the play does, raising difficult subjects that are part of the moment we are now living in, to have conversations that are unlike how the press makes us feel. We have to know our past to positively affect our present and future. Yes, this happened, but there’s something to be learned.