During the 1981 inaugural Gala for US President Elect Ronald Reagan, African-American actor Ben Vereen performed in blackface in front of the live audience. The anachronistic styling was in homage to Bert Williams, the legendary vaudevillian actor for whom the indignity of blackface was a simple fact of the industry. Vareen’s performance was meant to bring this history of humiliation, and in-turn the current racial tensions of America, into a present day perspective. Unfortunately, the final five minutes of the production where Vereen intended to contextualise this were inexplicably cut by ABC from the national televised broadcast. It was an omission that shifted the intent of the performance from critical satire to one of complicit degradation, and home viewers were understandably perplexed.
For Performa 15, New York City’s performance biennial that took place in November, Los Angeles artist Edgar Arceneaux revisited this censored moment in TV history for his first foray into live art. Entitled “Until, Until, Until…”, the hour-long performance at the 3-Legged Dog plays out loosely in three parts with the extraordinary Frank Lawson as Ben Vereen, Jes Dugger playing a perfectly saccharine Marie Osmond, Edgar Arceneaux making a brief cameo as the director, and a silent but omnipresent array of tech and stage hands.
“Until, Until, Until…” begins as an immersive stage-set that is assembled to resemble a relaxed lounge where audience members are invited to sit at round tables adorned with small tea lights. Lawson begins the performance mostly as a monologue, and Vareen’s vantage point shifts continuously between pre-performance practice, post-performance contemplation and current day reflection. Vintage footage shimmers on the stage curtains and the pure absurdity of a 1981 performance is quickly crystallised.
Lawson’s emotive song and dance ends abruptly as the character of Marie Osmand takes the stage in a garish sequined red dress (mimicking the real-life broadcast edit, where Vereen was cut short by the Hollywood siblings). She is soon joined by Lawson himself, now standing in as Donnie, and the two sing “Ronnie Be Good,” a mocking take on the dawn of the 1980s. The catchy tune and bouncy dancing makes it easy for the audience to lose sight of the emotional gravity of the performance they were just watching seconds earlier. It is at this moment when the audience becomes an implicit and eager consumer of entertainment.
Once finished, the spectators are instructed to move from one side of the theater to the other. This re-working of the staging is meant to mimic the crowded atrium of the gala itself. Lawson re-assumes his role as Vereen, and the cameraman who has been circling throughout the evening points his lens at the crowd. The faces of the audience members sitting at the venue suddenly appear on the stage curtains as 2015 is quickly transported back in time. Edgar Areceneaux renters the stage and with an ending that is as ominous as it is frank, quietly announces to the room that they haven’t quite figured out how to end the play yet.
Watching Lawson play Vareen play Williams begins to unravel a complicated notion of history as it relates to our collective consciousness. “Until, Until,Until…” investigates how the struggles of race and representation in the media are intrinsically tied to entertainment’s oscillation between reality and fiction. Both a blessing and a curse, it is a characteristic of television, and more broadly the media; and one that Arceneaux leans on to explore how the audience and the system are accountable for the creating and perpetuating blurred narratives.
Text by Devon Caranicas