I’ve always thought of Ben Vereen as an amazing and talented entertainer. He can sing and dance and act better than most human beings. I’ve always admired the man.
As Chicken George in Roots he brought me right there to that time and place. I loved him in the movie version of All That Jazz. I was thrilled to see him again when he appeared as Geordi La Forge’s father in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Vereen has always made me happy.
Well… not always.
The first time he shocked me wasn’t really his fault. I was watching Reagan’s inaugural gala in 1981. I was 16. My political morals hadn’t been fully formed yet. But when I saw Vereen perform in blackface, live, in front of a room of conservatives, singing “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”, I thought it was kind of weird. It was a homage to Bert Williams, an African American vaudeville entertainer who was not allowed to perform in many venues in the early 20th century unless he himself wore blackface.
According to this article in the New Yorker, what I, and the rest of America, didn’t know was that ABC had promised to air Vereen’s entire performance, when in fact they only showed us this first bit. So it looked like Vereen was being some weird Uncle Tom, shucking and jiving and mocking his people. And there was quite the backlash because of that. He received death threats. For many years, his career was sidelined.
If ABC had lived up to its promise to show the whole performance, it would have had an entirely different spin. Vereen, a liberal, does a shuck and jive blackface, gets applauded, acts delighted, and then pretends to ask a bartender to serve drinks to everyone to celebrate their victory. But the bartender refuses him. He says, “Sometimes I forgets my place.” And then, as he slowly removes his blackface, he sings another song that was often performed by Bert Williams called Nobody. One of the lines is “I ain’t never got nothing from nobody.”
Ben Vereen’s performance was actually meant to be an indictment of republican policies on civil rights. He risked his entire career to do it, and it blew up in his face. I did eventually see his complete performance, but I can’t remember where, and if you look all over the internet for the footage, you won’t find it. It’s very frustrating.
In 2015, the story of that debacle was made into a play entitled, “Until, Until, Until”. Ironically, it was also performed on the day Trump was inaugurated, but not at his gala. Definitely not. The play was later turned into an art installation.
And yet the majority of us still don’t know this story. This is just one of a million reasons why we need Critical Race Theory in our schools. If children of color are old enough to experience racism every day, it wouldn’t kill us if white children had to learn about it.
In this case, Vereen got a very raw deal. No doubt about it. It wasn’t fair.
I wish I could end the story right there, but life does tend to be a bit more complex than that. The second time Ben Vereen shocked me was entirely his fault. Unfortunately, this incident makes me think rather less of him.
Something came out about Vereen during the Me Too movement (a movement which should also be taught in schools, if you ask me). Four actresses claim to have been sexually harassed by Vereen when he was directing a production of the musical Hair back in 2015.
According to Wikipedia, he “forced unwanted kisses, hugged them aggressively, stripped naked during an acting exercise and made degrading comments about their weight, sex appeal, and personal lives.” He also goaded these women into sex acts. He has apologized, but still, this is not okay. Not even a little bit.
So, yeah, I have mixed emotions about Ben Vereen now. His behavior doesn’t match his brand. And this makes me sad. But I can’t long for more innocent times. They’re gone. I can wish that an unjustly accused gala performance be set right, but at the same time I can’t turn a blind eye to bad behavior.
We’re living in a complex world, indeed.
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