Ben Vereen is perhaps the most well known “triple threat” actor, dancer and singer, of his generation. In 1977, he starred as Chicken George in the TV series Roots, has headed the Broadway casts of Hair, Pippin, and Wicked, and appeared in numerous TV shows and films. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Liza Minelli and Lena Horne, and is currently touring nightclubs in the U.S. and Australia. I was able to sit down with Vereen for an interview this week while he is in town performing Steppin’ Out Live at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco. We had been classmates and friends at the High School of Performing Arts over 40 years ago, and so this was a very special occasion for the both of us.
You give your everything when you perform. How do you prepare for a show?
I warm up not only physically, but spiritually. I do my stretches, and all the physical warming up for my voice, but I do the spiritual warm up for quieting my mind, allowing that which is within to come out. I still get nervous, but it’s not something I push away: I welcome it; to me it’s my desire to serve, to do a good job for those who come. I let it embrace me, because I realize that it is your inner being letting you know that it is ready, but it still feels like nerves!
When your career was just about to hit its peak, you learned that your parents were not your biological parents. How did that alter your life?
An identity crisis set in. Who was I? Where was I from? If I wasn’t who I had thought I was, who was I? Why was I abandoned? Why wasn’t I loved? Have I been lied to? If so, by whom? What is the truth? What is truth? What is real? Then those questions and doubts open doors to all sorts of dysfunctional behavior, and I went through a lot of those doors looking for myself, and something greater than myself kept me alive and kept me going until I found the truth.
Why was what kept you alive something “greater”?
Because my mental scope of humanity was telling me to give up, and so I was looking at the higher power, not necessarily as God, Buddha, or Allah, but as the creative force that keeps up going, the power that constantly comes up with ways for us to create a life within our life. Once you arrive at that point, then there’s a choice: to create or destroy.
You use the metaphor “doors,” but what were those doors concretely in your life?
Drugs, alcohol, and a promiscuous life style allowed me to hide and put up a mask to others and the public, and not show the pain of feeling that I was on the outside looking in, when I was so wanting to fit in and be normal, and behind the mask there was destruction and confusion. The only event in my life that felt real was the death of my daughter, Naja. It cut through all the falsehoods straight to my heart, and that wound will always be there. I learned to live with it. If you looked closely at my mask, it was a little off center. Her death forced me to find my center and settled me in. I arrived at the conclusion that I wouldn’t settle for anything less than to be treated as the worthy human being I am. I tell those I know that they are kings and queens because I think all of us deserve to think of ourselves as kings and queens– because we are!
Your audiences seem to feel very comfortable and at home with you. What would it surprise them to know about you?
I share a lot with my audiences. Most of them know about my addictive behavior and the accident that nearly caused me to lose my life, because I’ve been honest with them. But there are shadows, and I guess a part of me is opening up to release those shadows. On stage I can be pretty honest, but they might be shocked at some of the things that I have done. Maybe not. Maybe I underestimate their capacity.
We know that Sammy Davis, Jr. was a mentor, and a big influence in your life. What other individuals had a big impact on how you perform, and what lessons did you take away from knowing and working with them?
Dr. Rachel Yocum, the director of the Dance Department at New York’s High School of Performing Arts was a mentor. When Benjamin Raskin, my Junior High School principal, insisted that I try out for PA and said “You should audition,” first of all I didn’t know about auditions, but I went. I had had no serious training, and made up my own steps. I felt I didn’t do well at the audition. I compared myself to others there such as Winston Hemsley. But they accepted me into the school and she said come this way, and fought for me to stay in school, because I didn’t have the grades.
Another dancer there, Tony Catanzaro, who was a year ahead of me, taught me how to dance. He stayed with me from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. after school had closed , showing me Norman Walker’s choreography, and as a result, I was chosen to participate in a senior-level lecture demonstration led by our Modern Dance teacher, David Wood. Then there was Bernice Johnson and Michael Peters. We would go out to Bernice’s studio on Long Island to take classes in African dance.. I worked with Juliet Prowse, Arthur Mitchell, and Carmen de Lavallade, Talley Beatty, and Donald Mckayle. I’ve watched Frank Sinatra, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Sly, Gregory Hines, and many, many others. I took away a sense of the value of work, a work ethic. I’d watch Sammy from the wings, and how he worked with the audience, his devotion to them. When I worked with Leslie Uggams, I saw that she didn’t connect well with the audience, and I stopped the show, and began working with her to do that. Tom O’Horgan broke the fourth wall, walking over chairs. Vinnette Carroll took the actors into the audience to let them know that we are all one, and when you come to the theater it becomes my living room and I want to serve the best meal I’ve got because you deserve it.
Celebrity can lift an artist onto a higher plateau, but it can also anchor him or her to an insular life. What has been the impact of celebrity on your life?
Until I learned to embrace it, I thought I had to insulate myself, and you really can’t insulate yourself. When I was trying to get sober, I’d always go into rehab under an alias, until I finally admitted that I had the disease of alcoholism. Celebrity is a strange animal. When you hide from it, it becomes a clamor and that clamor can push you into defective behaviors, especially if you don’t have a home life, forcing you into a kind of seclusion. It can really get nuts out here, because people pull on you, pull on you, and you, or at least, I, need a higher source of inspiration to carry on.
Here’s a funny story: When I was in high school and going to dance classes, a guy came up to me and said, “Would you give me your autograph? You’ll be famous some day.” He was an autograph collector. Many years later, as I was walking out the stage door after a performance of Pippin, there he was looking for an autograph. He didn’t recognize me from the dance class days, but I recognized him and I told him, “You already have my autograph.” I see a lot of celebrities reject the public. I worked with a young lady in a show a few years ago, and she wouldn’t acknowledge those who came to see her. I told her, “These are the people who will come see you again, buy your CDs, your DVDs. They are your life and career. You’ve got to know your boundaries, but you also have to let your fans in.” I love my public, and if I’m walking down the street and someone wants to take a picture with me, I’m happy to do it. After all, they’ve taken the time to come to my show. Gilda Matthews sent me t-shirts that say “Spread the love,” and I think we should, we don’t have to hoard love any more than we’d hoard water; there’s enough for everyone.
You have had a career that is the envy of many young, talented people. If it were possible to have had a career not connected to the performing arts, what would it have been?
Somewhere in service. The closest would be teaching or ministry, not religious, but spiritual. I would like to have done something like Glide Memorial Church, or the Agape church in L.A. that serves the people, and I probably will day one day. I go to speak to people in rehab, and in prisons.
What do you think about the recent statistics that came to light in a New Yorker article that there are more Black people in prison today in the United States than there were slaves during slavery?
What happened after the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X? We let society beat us instead of taking control. One Black man elected to office can’t change that. We have to mobilize, be in the streets, visible. We used to do that. I gave a speech at Boys High in Brooklyn on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. I said that it seems like since Martin and Malcolm were killed, the Black population has taken some kind of pill like Valium, or a sedative. We’re no longer on the front lines. Instead of government serving us, it is telling us more and more what we can and cannot do. We must unite, and I’m not talking about Democrat and Republican, I’m talking about the human race, it’s about brother and sister helping one another. Those who have, have, and want more, but we all have an equal right to the wealth we created together.
Ben Vereen will be appearing at the Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, in San Francisco through Sunday. For more information, call 415 394-1189.