‘I Was Brought to Tears’: Watch Artist Edgar Arceneaux Reinterpret a Tragically Misunderstood 1980s Performance

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Chicago" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 8. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

In 1981, actor Ben Vereen was invited to perform at a gala to celebrate the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. His act was an homage to renowned vaudevillian Bert Williams, the first Black man to have a lead role in a feature film.

The two-part performance began with a minstrel show featuring Vereen in blackface, followed by a critique of such racist acts and a tribute to Williams’s perseverance. But as artist Los Angeles-based Edgar Arceneaux explains in an exclusive interview with Art21, that’s not what Americans saw when it aired on live television.

“ABC edited out that second part,” Arceneaux explained in the 2016 interview. The station “only showed him doing a minstrel show for Ronald Reagan and 25,000 white Republicans.” In short order, Vereen’s friends and peers abandoned him for what they saw as an unforgivable act. But Arceneaux wondered, even if they had seen the second part of the show, would they have understood?

Production still from the “Chicago” episode of “Art in the Twenty-First Century,” Season 8. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

That question is at the heart of a play Arceneaux staged called “Until, Until, Until,” commissioned for Performa 15 and based on Vereen’s original performance. Arceneaux told Art21 that ambiguity like that at the center of the Vereen controversy is the fuel that drives his art practice.

“The power of what art is, which is distinctive from other fields, is its unruliness,” he said. “Art is not inherently good. It’s not inherently bad. But it is inherently contradictory. Its nature is to ask new questions.”

Before he staged his rendition of the tragically misunderstood 1981 performance, Arceneaux spoke to Ben Vereen himself. “I was brought to tears during the call,” Arceneaux said, imagining how Vereen must have felt having his work so taken out of context. “I could sense from [Vereen] that, he knows there’s people out there that care now about what he tried to do 30 years ago. Maybe now is that time.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below. This week, Performa is re-broadcasting the play “Until, Until, Until” online

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.


Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.