“The progressive politics of Ben’s performance has never been fully understood,” Edgar Arceneaux says.
The Pasadena artist is referring to Ben Vereen’s performance in blackface at then-President Ronald Reagan’s televised inaugural ball in 1981. Arceneaux watched it after the fact, about 20 years ago. The video he saw made such a lasting impression that he decided to recreate the live performance as Until, Until, Until…. In an email exchange, he explained his fascination with the fraught but enduring power of Vereen’s intended tribute to Bert Williams, an African-American vaudevillian who performed in blackface at the turn of the 20th century.
“It’s difficult to say with any certainty if Vereen’s performance was my introduction to Williams,” Arceneaux notes. “But what I can say for certain is that it was the most impactful, and one that I’ve carried with me for some time. And over the years I learned more about what Williams did, his accomplishments, and the tragedy of his early passing. But somewhere in that picture of imagining Williams, Vereen’s portrayal was a layer in my imagining him.”
Until, Until, Until… is part of the current Edgar Arceneaux exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). The exhibit is one part installation and one part “live action play,” and it’ll be performed over three nights in February. The installation excerpts scenes from the original ABC broadcast on a small (and now antique) TV.
Watching it, you can make out Vereen’s doleful eyes tearing up from beneath his greasepaint mask. The image then disintegrates into colorful pixels of distracting static until re-forming into his song-and-dance routine. In front of the TV, a large scrim hangs from the ceiling. The artist projects a previous performance of the play onto it, a sneak preview of the live version.
Arceneaux explained what, if any, correspondences the two screens exchange.
“In the installation there is no syncing of the videos,” he says. “The connections and disconnections between both films are associated by the viewer, making them in my opinion more active participants in constructing the meaning in the artwork.”
Additionally, there are RGB “presences” — shapes lit in red, green, and blue — projected onto the gallery walls. They could be atoms or molecules, but he describes them as “a way for me to allude to and materialize the television signal that was recorded but never broadcast.
“They are meant to look like tumors or flesh and I hope have the effect of a ‘trigger’ in the same way that traumas affect all peoples when least expected,” he adds.
The missing television signal that Arceneaux is referring to is the second part of Vereen’s performance — one that never aired. Without that part, his appearance in blackface was widely misinterpreted, and the actor was vilified. One viewer’s response featured in Until’s trailer exemplifies the audience’s reaction at the time: “I was appalled and outraged when Vereen appeared in ‘black face’ and turned the clock back 60 years. … This outrageous performance is demeaning and an insult to all Black people of the world.”
Thirty-seven years after the inauguration, it’s still disconcerting to watch Vereen’s minstrelsy. When he’s juxtaposed against, and behind, the projection of Arceneaux’s play, the discomfort intensifies.
The artist’s video includes a wide pan and holds on the reactions of an uncomfortable audience. Be prepared: You’ll be more than a passive participant when you attend. Arceneaux confirms that in February, “Yes, the audience will be filmed. I don’t want to ruin the surprises in the show by saying too much about this but they are an important part of the experience.”
Until, Until, Until…, Feb 22-24, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., ybca.org
Four Other Theatrical Events We’re Excited About
Teen One-Acts Festival
Feb. 2-3, Berkeley Rep, berkeleyrep.org/teenoneacts
An opportunity for high school students to create theater from scratch, featuring two new plays — Fig and Wasp and Lucky.
Every 28 Hours Black Arts Festival 2018: A Healing Experience
Feb. 3, 3-10 p.m., A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, act-sf.org
This annual festival returns to celebrate local Black art, culture, and activism focusing on “resilience and joy” in the face of oppression.
Lucia Berlin Stories
Feb. 14 – March 11, Z Space, zspace.org/storiesbyluciaberlin
Word for Word stages five inter-connected short stories taken from A Manual for Cleaning Women by the late Lucia Berlin, all set in the Bay Area and scored with jazz.
Feb. 7 – March 3, SF Playhouse, sfplayhouse.org
Virtual worlds collide in Walt McGough’s play about online gaming friends who turn against each other.