Edgar Arceneaux: When history becomes the present

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Conceptual artist Edgar Arcenaux is probably best known for his experimental play “Until, Unti, Until,” which premiered in New York and is currently on a National Tour– the next stop is San Luis Obispo.

“Until, Until, Until” is Arceneaux’s first piece for the stage. It’s based on Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Inaugural Ball, which was televised across the country.

Johnny Carson set the scene. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said to a crowd of 25,000 mostly white audience members. “I’m sure you know at the turn of the century, it was a segregated theater. And a black man, in order to appear at a white man’s show, had to put on a black face, so nobody would know. And one of the giant stars of that era in the Ziegfeld was Bert Williams. Here tonight to play tribute to Bert Williams, is Ben Vereen.”

Bert Williams was a vaudeville performer and one of the most popular performers in America at the beginning of the 20th Century. He was the first black American to take a leading role on Broadway, and received more critical acclaim in mainstream entertainment than most black actors. And he always appeared in blackface.

Bert Williams in blackfaceface. Promotional photo by Samuel Lumiere studio, New York City, via Library of Congress (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So for his tribute to Williams a the Inaugural Ball, Ben Vereen did the same.

Arcenaux described the show.

“He walks out,” Arceneaux said. “He’s in blackface. He’s got on this oversized brown suit, brown top hat. And he’s performing as Bert Williams, actually singing the song ‘Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.’ And he’s doing it in a kind of Bob Fosse, high kicking, happy hands, kind of style.”

In the next act, Vereen is still in blackface, but this time the tone turns from happy-go-lucky to tragic. Vereen appears as Bert Williams after a show. He offers to buy a round of drinks for the audience, but the bartender denies him because he’s black.

“He’s told, essentially, you can’t drink with us,” Arceneaux said. “So, trying to hold on to his dignity, he goes back to his dressing room and then sings another song, which is so heartbreaking and so moving, it brings many people to tears.”

The final act was meant to be subversive commentary on a society that encourages a man to entertain it, but denies him the basic rights of white society when he re-emerges into the real world.

But things didn’t go as planned. ABC only broadcast the first part of Vereen’s performance– the part where he was singing and dancing. They cut out the second act and viewers across America only got to see Ben Vereen doing a minstrel show in blackface.

“And he never got the opportunity to tell his side of the story because all of his friends either abandoned him or they just stopped returning his phone calls, or they came out and spoke against him publicly,” Arceneaux said.

Vereen got death threats, people spit in his face when he walked down the streets.

“He got some of the most horrible letters you can imagine,” Arceneaux said. “Saying ‘you set the race back 100 years.’ Imagine that.”

“Until, Until, Until.” Courtesy Edgar Arceneaux. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Arceneaux wanted to revisit Vereen’s work and integrate today’s audiences in the experience.

On the walls and curtains around Arceneaux’s recreation, is a projection of the original audience from 1981. And as the current audience is watching, they see themselves projected onto that same curtain, merged with the audience from 30 years ago.

Arceneaux said he never thought he’d make work about race, and he specifically wanted to avoid doing anything about blackface.

“I’m thinking to myself, how did this happen” he said. “You know, you tell yourself you’re not going to do something and there you are square in the middle of doing it. But in many ways, artists, create taboos and then we find ourselves attracted to the very thing that draws great discomfort.”

Edgar Arceneaux in his studio. (Photo: Gina Pollack) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Crystallized books in Arceneaux’s studio. (Photo: Gina Pollack) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Arceneaux, who was born and raised in South LA, now works out of his home studio in Pasadena. As a conceptual artist, he uses nearly every medium– drawing, painting, theater and film to explore history and identity.

On a shelf in the back of his home are a dozen antique law books marinating in vats of sugar water. A thick layer of big white crystals have sealed the books shut. They look like literary geodes.

“It’s part of what I call an embedded paradox,” he says. “Because on one level, we think of them as something that’s frozen in time. But simultaneously, they actually grow organically, like the roots of a tree.”

The law books soaking in sugar water speak to a question that Arceneaux has been exploring throughout his career as an artist.

As he put it, “When history comes into the present, what is it doing here now, and why does it resonate with us?”