Ben Vereen ‘shuffles” for President Ronnie

Jan. 31, 1981

The city’s black population is up in arms this week over what some have called the “despicable” performance of actor Ben Vereen at President Reagan’s inauguration festivities.

Vereen, the popular actor who perhaps gained the nations respect for his performance of “Chicken George” in the epic television drama, “Roots,” enraged blacks with his impersonation of Bert Williams, the mythic black comedian of the 30s who wore blackface in his climb to heights of his Broadway career.

In its entirety, Vereen’s impersonation is quite outstanding, as he first performs as Williams must have done in his era, but finishes the act with the legendary actor leaving his act and the stage in disgust, determined not to perform within the narrowly defined limits posed for black actors of that day which kept them duty bound and in their places, so to speak, for digestion and acceptance by white audiences.

At the inauguration, however, Vereen cut his act short, leaving out resolution of the problem of being told how and what to perform. Vereen’s act was no more than a re-creation of the blackface routines that blacks were forced to perform in order to survive.

The AFRO was flooded with calls the following day, from angry citizens and politicians who labeled the act “disgusting,” and demanding to know why such an act had been allowed to be. Delegate Troy Brailey called the act a “setback” to the gains made by black performers over time. And in an angry letter to the new president, Delegate Frank Conaway expressed “surprise and disgust” for the performance.

Conaway, in his letter to President Reagan, said that Vereen’s opening remarks were “not only an insult but also salt to the wounds of black citizens.” Demanding an apology from the president, Conaway called Vereen’s introductory remarks “stupid” in which he called segregation a blank innocuous historical event.

Conaway then asked the president if “this kind of blatant or blunder foolishness” is the type of sensitivity the public is to expect from the new administration. In a clearly warning tone, Conaway stated that if so, the new president could “forget forever about the black vote of the land.”

Upon receiving the calls of protest about Vereen’s act, the AFRO made repeated attempts to reach spokespersons from the Regan Inauguration Committee and Vereen himself. Inauguration committee members, however, were unwilling to discuss the performance, and the agent for Mr. Vereen was unavailable for comment.

One woman, who preferred to remain unnamed, said that the performance was “out of place.” “I am a white woman,” she said, “and I was embarrassed for my race when I saw that act. I don’t think the new president showed much sensitivity… and neither do I think Ben Vereen showed much common sense or pride in his performance.”