Bert Williams was one of the great black vaudevillians, but like most black performers of the era, he had to perform in blackface before white audiences. Thirty seven years ago the Broadway star Ben Vereen (Pippin) did a tribute to Williams at the inauguration gala for President Ronald Reagan, a performance that was broadcast live on television. Viewers saw the first half with Vereen in black face, strutting and singing the Williams hit "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee."
For black audiences watching the inaugural, it seemed as though Vereen, who a few years earlier had been celebrated for his role as "Chicken George” in the landmark miniseries Roots, had shamed himself and the black community before a crowd of white conservatives.
Now there's a musical play and art exhibition, Until, Until, Until... by video artist Edgar Arceaux about that performance, its impact on Vereen's career, and America's racist heritage.
"When history presents itself so forcefully," Arceneaux says, "you ask what does it mean."