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Reconsidering Ben Vereen’s Blackface Performance at Reagan’s Inaugural Gala

The metric of a play’s success tends to be the amount of applause that follows its final act. The success of “Until, Until, Until…”, a play created and directed by artist Edgar Arceneaux, can be measured by silence. Written in collaboration with Kurt Forman, “Until, Until, Until…” revisits Ronald Reagan’s televised inaugural gala in 1981, when celebrated Broadway and television actor Ben Vereen paid tribute to vaudeville great, Bert Williams. The performance nearly cost Vereen his career. “Until, Until, Until…” has opened to acclaim in New York and recently in Los Angeles, at Susanne Vielmetter Gallery in Culver City. Now, Arceneaux prepares to tour the play across the country, with deliberate efforts to hit so-called Red States and Swing States. 

For those who didn’t live this history, a playbill lays the groundwork before curtain’s open. At the turn of the 20th Century, Williams was the first black actor to reach Broadway, but American institutional racism scarred his mainstream ascent. Williams was forced to perform in blackface, and for the first five minutes of his tribute at the gala, Vereen chose to do the same, singing and high-kicking through a rendition of “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (a steamboat named for the Confederate general) in blackface and ragged clothing. At the end of the number, awash in the crowd’s cheers, Vereen, still in character as Williams, invites the audience — “my friends” — out to celebrate. Addressing a perceived bartender, he tries to buy a round for everyone but is refused service for the color of his skin. Vereen then slowly removes his makeup, singing Williams’ signature song, “Nobody” — I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody/ I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time — in a gutting critique of racial injustice.

Frank Lawson in "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Frank Lawson in "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

If only ABC hadn’t cut those final five minutes from its broadcast. In 1981, television audiences across the United States saw only the first act of Vereen’s performance. The optics, in essence, showed Vereen exacting a minstrel show for a smiling, clapping Ron and Nancy, and their predominantly white audience. Vereen became a pariah and an outcast, the subject of public and private derision. It would be years before he could resurrect his career and public standing. 

In Arceneaux’s play, actor Frank Lawson profoundly captures Vereen as both the 70-year-old man reflecting on that day in real-time, and the 30-something performer, at the pinnacle of his career, preparing and delivering the show of his life. The play moves effortlessly between the decades, sometimes blurring them — in effect, mirroring the cyclical structure of trauma and its sudden grips. 

Arceneaux casts himself in the play as both the director of “Until, Until, Until…” and as the director-choreographer of Vereen’s gala number. At one point, Arceneaux, playing himself, sits alongside Lawson, playing Vereen, as they watch a recording of the actual performance on a dated television. “I was something back then!” says Lawson, to no response. Arceneaux, like the audience, is witness to a man’s inescapable, undeserved pain. Simultaneously, Arcenaux is a participant in it, however unwilling, offering no antidote save for a redo. In its 50-minute runtime, “Until, Until, Until…” recreates Vereen’s performance in its entirety. In 2017, as in 1981, the performance is not just a Vaudeville vestige, of course, but an uncomfortable appraisal of the present day.  “Until, Until, Until…”, like the performance it absorbs, articulates its most powerful sentiments in its negative spaces, in the gaps where words fail. 

Frank Lawson in "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Frank Lawson in "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Midway through “Until, Until, Until…”, the audience moves to seats surrounding the actor onstage. When Lawson delivers the lines of “Nobody,” audience members can feel each other shoulder to shoulder, can see each other across the room. So too, when he reintroduces himself near the play’s end. “I am Ben Vereen,” he says, as if the audience might question the statement’s validity. “It’s an honor to be here tonight, Mister and Missus President Elect.”

We watch Lawson’s face break gradually, watch him begin to weep, before he leaves the stage. And then we watch each other. Or, in many cases, we avoid doing just that. Not a soul dares to clap. What are we applauding, after all? This isn’t a performance but a flashback, a reflection, an allegory. On screens facing the audience, we see footage of Reagan’s guests eventually leaving their seats at the theater. Then the cameras turn on us. We see ourselves and we don’t know what to do with these people. 

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“There’s no button at the end of the number, no curtain, no light cue,” says Lawson, speaking by phone after his L.A. performance. “I can feel the audience’s discomfort — through their silence, I know that they don’t know what to do. Some are confused, some hurt, angry, some just want to run out of their seats. They’re sitting there, waiting for permission to leave.” In fact, the only cue to leave comes from Reagan’s recorded audience, a group with whom we — Arceneaux’s audience — hardly want to associate, given what we’ve just seen. Shame is an elastic feeling, with myriad ramifications and directions. It can point inwards or out, evoke empathy or defensiveness. It can even be a tool for disassociation, a euphemism. “What a shame.” Shame consistently elicits a desire to be alone, but “Until, Until, Until…” won’t grant the audience that comfort.

Frank Lawson and Mel Mehrabian performing in "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Frank Lawson and Mel Mehrabian performing in "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

In Arceneaux’s Los Angeles studio, handwritten notes about the play’s next stops cover his work desk. “It’s important that artists burden themselves with the task of actually producing knowledge, not just commenting on the things that people already know,” he says. “Referencing is easy, but I've tasked myself with trying to make things that could be a useful tool for other people — a framework to perceive reality differently.” In the United States, reality has demonstrably changed since the play premiered in 2015. 

Yes, this is, at times, a play “about” Ben Vereen. The legendary actor even attended opening night in L.A., and offered the cast his input afterwards. And yes, the play is a commentary on Cold-War, Just-Say-No America. But, above all, it is about the collection of bodies that gather for each performance, their perceptions and present-day experiences, the things they communicate in their silence. The piece demonstrates the degree to which it is not only difficult to find the voice but also the words with which to speak, to speak up and speak out. To this day, some people still question Vereen’s choice of protest. “Some people took real issue with the piece and Vereen himself,” says Arceneaux, “Others responded with adulation.” 

Liza Minelli and Ben Vereen in the audience, watching "Until, Until, Until..." | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Liza Minelli and Ben Vereen in the audience, watching "Until, Until, Until..."  | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

“Until, Until, Until…” will open at Yerba Buena Center for The Arts in San Francisco next January, before moving to La Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. Arceneaux is currently fundraising and organizing with venues across the country to take the show on the road, notably to cities such as Milwaukee, Charleston and Cincinnati, where the divisions that run through Red States and Swing States will provide charged backgrounds for the play, and different realities to view through its framework. 

“One of my fantasies is to do it in Gary, Indiana, where Michael Jackson grew up,” says Arceneaux, “What if we could build an audience of union workers from the steel mill in Gary? Go to a place, connect to a community, perform for churches, organizations, unions, schools.” In different settings, the play will not only take on different meanings, but it will bring together different people. By recording the audiences each night, “Until, Until, Until…” also becomes a documentation of America. “One product of the tour will be video portraits of various communities across America during this Trump Era,” says Arceneaux. “There's a story there to be written about the different reactions we’re going to get, about the feelings the play will trigger in people, depending on the time and place.” 

Until, Until, Until... | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Until, Until, Until... | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

As for the potential outcomes of the tour, “You just don't know until you get there,” says Lawson. “But hopefully we can change minds and perspectives.” The play has the capacity, he says, to “make us better people, more loving, more compassionate and understanding.” Much can be heard in a silence. 

Top Image: Until, Until, Until... | Courtesy of Edgar Arceneaux and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Inquiries and contributions to the “Until, Until, Until…” tour can be made at studioedgararceneaux.com 

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