by Mark Anthony Neal
At the peak of his career, actor, singer and dancer Ben Vereen was asked to perform at an inaugural celebration for Ronald Reagan in January of 1981. With a successful career on the stage, winning a Tony Award for Pippin in 1973, Vereen become a household name on the strength of his role as Chicken George, grandson of Kunte Kinte, in the ground-breaking mini-series Roots (1977). With access, perhaps, to his greatest stage, Vereen chose to pay tribute to America’s first Black cross-over artist, Bert Williams.
Williams, who was the first African-American to have a starring role for the famed Ziegfeld Follies in 1910 and who with partner George Walker once labeled their minstrel act as “two real coons,” is today, the most well-known Black-face minstrel.
Born in the Bahamas in 1874, Williams’ performance of so-called “authentic” Black American culture, made him a major star. With his mainstream success, Williams paved the way for generations of Black stage and movie performers, though the Blackface minstrelsy that was his vehicle is often looked back on with disdain and shame.
It was perhaps such shame that Vereen was hoping to address, when he began performing tributes to Williams in the early 1970s. As Vereen told the Los Angeles Times in 1975, “I’m dealing with cleaning up Black history—the uncle Tom/coon era. Bert was one of the highest paid vaudevillians, yet he couldn’t share a dressing room with a white man.” Given his history of portraying Williams, Vereen probably thought nothing about the performance as he stepped on stage that evening in January of 1981, even as Black leaders had already dubbed the Reagan presidency as a major set-back for Civil Rights.
As part of his performance, Vereen began with an introduction that explained the indignities that Williams faced, including the task of putting charcoal on his face on a nightly basis, in order to be transformed into the “darky” that White Americans—and quite a few Black Americans—found so alluring. Unfortunately, when Vereen’s performance was aired by CBS, the introduction was edited out.