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."
What TV viewers didn’t see, Arceneaux explains, was the second part of the performance, in which Vereen mimicked being refused service because of his color while trying to buy the Republican elite a congratulatory drink.
“So he’s essentially talking to the audience, "Arceneaux says, "who stands in as the bartender who denies him a drink, after practically giving him a standing ovation."
So Vereen's performance was meant as a critique of Republican civil rights policies. But the TV audience didn't see that.
“You can imagine how hurtful it would be to do this performance in front of Republicans putting your career at risk for your community," Arceneaux explained in a phone conversation last week. "Then they’re the ones who turn against him the most. He got death threats. People spit in his face.”
Details about Edgar Arceneaux's ongoing art exhibition about Vereen, blackface, and the Reagan inaugural (through March 24), are here. And details for the Feb. 22-24 musical performance Until, Until, Until... are here.