Ben Vereen

In his show at Hartford Stage's SummerStage, this veteran of stage, film and TV will celebrate our beloved show business pioneers while taking audiences from Brooklyn to Broadway.

 

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 Is there a connection between dancing and acting?

Yes. Acting also comes from the core, the center. Some people call it the spirit. Some people call it God, it is God. People call it Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Krishna—it's all that stuff inside of one, that we have the honor of being able to express as artists.

Are you as in love with dancing as you've always been?

I'm still passionately in love with dancing. I can't dance the way I used to, but at my age, I don't want to. I love dancers. I just came from Steps on Broadway; I was standing there watching classes. I had an accident in 1992 that slowed me down, but it didn't slow down my spirit, and my spirit still has a passion for dance. Physically, I can't do what I used to do or want to do, but I still have a passion for it. And it shows in my work. I just don't want people coming to the show expecting me to do cartwheels.

What choreographers or dancers do you admire these days?

All of them; anyone who has anything good to say. Sergio Trujillo, who just choreographed the show Memphis, is incredible. He also choreographed The Addams Family.  I saw Memphis and was very impressed by Trujillo's interpretation of the family of dance. He did a wonderful job on the rock 'n' roll segments. Charlie Devine is another great up-and-comer. Most choreographers today are influenced by Bill T. Jones—my God, what fantastic work. The list goes on and on; they're coming out of the woodwork.

So stage dance is alive and well. Are there new trends emerging?

I think everyone is trying to find ways to keep it alive, to modernize the expression of it when they do a Broadway show. I think they're trying to do something with hip hop. They're trying to find a way to get that into the pocket. I'm curious to see where that goes. They've got to marry that into the root of where dance is from, into the root of modern dance and ballet, which is kind of hard to do.

You gained fame and regard on TV with your work in "Roots." After all this time, what would you say the impact of that miniseries has been?

I'd like to think "Roots" changed the consciousness of a planet. But a slave mentality still permeates our society. The invisible chains are still on people, not just black people but society as a whole. It's a mental, spiritual, morality thing. When you have young people going up against one another, when you have a society not taking care of its own, when you have unemployment, homelessness and hunger . . . when you have anger and fear as the culprit of a mantra, then we have a problem. We have to be more careful and watchful of our humanity and each other.

It seems like there's something that needs healing deep down inside all of us, that hasn't been dealt with yet.

Exactly, and that's that slave mentality . . . not just within black people but all people.

It would be interesting to see them air the show again.

They air "Roots" every year, but its impact is diminishing. There's still a rumble about it, but the impact it had in the 1970s will not be felt again until people wake up. We recently celebrated the 30th anniversary and it was wonderful—people got together and TV Land gave us trophies. But I look around and go, the job's not finished. Martin Luther King's dream has not been fulfilled, Malcolm's cry has not been heard . . . what did these men die for? Not to get all philosophical on you. [laughs]

You were diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago. How has that changed your life?

The diabetes diagnosis was a blessing, a Christmas gift. I look at it that way because it saved my life. We're taught in our society how to make a living, not how to live. If we were taught how to live we'd say, these are the things to watch out for on planet Earth. I had no idea. I was not a person who had lived with diabetes, so it was not in my atmosphere. I didn't know the symptoms and signals to watch out for—dry mouth, lethargy, lightheadedness—once they happened to me. I just thought it was a virus and would pass.

Once I collapsed, my daughter took me to the hospital, on Christmas Day 2007. They diagnosed me with Type II diabetes—it was a wakeup call, saying it's time to start taking care of your body. Once I knew what I had, it was easy to change my behavior and my eating habits. If America changed its eating habits and exercised more, we'd have a healthier country. So I said, let me get out there and talk to people, help them realize we have to change this thing around.

It's not a challenge, but an opportunity. We're not suffering from diabetes, we're living with it. When you begin to talk about it in those terms, then we begin to look for all the possibilities it has to offer us. If you don't do proper things, the horror stories do still happen.

We don't focus enough on primary prevention in this country. . .

No we don't, and it's up to us. We keep looking at government to shield and take care of things, when we the people are the government. We hire Barack Obama, who said it's time for change, then we start beating him up because he's trying to make a change. But it's not really about his change, it's about us changing ourselves.

You're someone who does a lot of humanitarian work, supports a variety of causes. Is there a cause or initiative that's most important to you?

The human cause. Planetary survival.

 What worries you the most about the future?

That we are not paying enough attention to the now, never mind the future. We're not awake. We're not paying enough attention, caring enough, true to the word of what we pray to, shout to, and give honor to. We build churches, but we're not being true to that by loving each other and taking care of our planet. That concerns me. At the end of the day, I have to look at it optimistically—that love will survive and heal all things. That keeps me going every day.

What will we see you in next? When do you think your musical will come out?

In a year or two. I've also been working on a play by Will Power, called Fetch Clay, Make Man. We did it at the McCarter Theater at Princeton earlier this year. We're looking to bring it to Broadway very soon. It's a brilliant play about Muhammed Ali and Stepin Fetchit aka Lincoln Perry. Stepin Fetchit died of a broken heart because he was misunderstood by both the black and white community; his name became synonymous with Uncle Tom. Ali befriended him and brought him to his training camp, where Fetchit taught him the punch that Ali used to knock out Sonny Liston. That's what the play's about. In fact Will Power is here, we're about to work on it right now.

And the movie Mama Wanna Sing, directed by Charles Randolph Wright, is coming out pretty soon. He'll be the director on From Brookyn to Broadway as well. Other than that, well, reruns! [laughs]

Ben Vereen

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