CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In 1981, at the inaugural celebration for Ronald Reagan, the American singer-dancer Ben Vereen performed a tribute to Bert Williams, one of the preeminent comedians of the vaudeville era. Vereen was dressed as Williams might have been for a performance of the Ziegfeld Follies: white gloves, cravat, top hat, and blackface.
As Johnny Carson, the master of ceremonies, explained during his introduction of Vereen, “A black man, in order to appear at a white man’s show, had to put on a black face so no one would know.” Vereen concluded his performance with a baleful critique of racial injustice, but this was cut from a televised version of the all-star gala broadcast on ABC.
The condemnation was swift. In a review the next day for the Washington Post, Tom Shales savaged the singer-dancer, writing, “[Vereen’s] shopworn tribute to musical hall performer Bert Williams … seemed unfortunately shuffly and Uncle Tom-ish — especially considering the fact that the Reagan administration has already been criticized for insensitivity to racial realities.”
Some 35 years on, the artist Edgar Arceneaux has converted this episode into a series of works that investigate the 1981 performance — and Vereen’s subsequent excommunication from show business. Late last year, Arceneaux directed “Until, Until, Until…,” a reenactment of Vereen’s tribute that brought together live performance (with Frank Lawson as Ben Vereen) and footage of the original broadcast. The work, which debuted at Performa 2015, was not intended to excuse or defend Vereen’s use of blackface, but to gauge its power to offend in a contemporary context.
“Now, this is the thing: even if America had seen [the complete performance], I am not convinced that most people would have thought that it was a good idea,” Arceneaux said in a recent episode of the Art21 series Art in the Twenty-First Century. “That’s the reason why I wanted to do it, because of that uncertainty.”
The next iteration of the series — one of three works in Edgar Arceneaux: Written in Smoke and Fire, on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center — recreates the Performa stage and projects footage of the 2015 performance onto a drop curtain. On one side is a bench for spectators; on the other are a stool, makeup table, and a coat stand laden with vaudevillian miscellany.
This barrier is permeable, allowing viewers to pass from the periphery of the installation into a semi-enclosed area illuminated by light filtering through the semi-transparent scrim. The claustral space simulates the interior life of the ill-fated singer-dancer during the inaugural gala and its aftermath.
Like “Until, Until, Until…,” Arceneaux’s other works on display interrogate social and cultural narratives, particularly those concerning black public figures. “The Library of Black Lies” (2016) is a labyrinthine shack outfitted with mirrors and containing phony treatises like Cermano Geleant’s Part Povera (a spoof on Germano Celant’s Arte Povera). All of these mock manifestos and fraudulent folios have been manipulated in some way, either painted, charred, or encrusted with sugar crystals. As with the semi-enclosed stage of “Until, Until, Until…,” this spiral-shaped dwelling both confines the viewer and exposes her to other visitors who peer through cracks in the exterior of the shack. On one shelf is a collection of books written by Bill Cosby, who is described in wall text as “a barrier-breaking figure whose legacy as beloved television star has recently been recast by numerous allegations of sexual assault.” This hovel is not a library at all, but a house of mirrors, a den of doppelgängers (Cermano Geleant, Jerry Cellery, Jeremy Sealant), a place where cultural memory is subject to constant revision.
Beyond this Borgesian vortex is a body of work, “A Book and a Medal” (2014), that makes use of light boxes, wooden palettes, and a variety of materials to examine the legacy of a quasi-sacral figure in national history: Martin Luther King, Jr. This composite work is anchored by “A Time to Break Silence” (2013), a single-channel HD video named for a 1967 speech in which King denounced the Vietnam War, proclaiming:
[We] have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.
In Arceneaux’s hour-long film, an actor who resembles King declaims from a lectern made of rubble, while a humanoid in shaggy coat and leggings scrabbles across the nave of a derelict church in Detroit. This enigmatic creature, described as an “archaic human” in exhibition materials, is wearing a plastic proboscis and gloves that resemble simian digits. The presence of a Neanderthal is an allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released the year following King’s speech and speaks to “the way in which life and science fiction are so often intertwined,” in the words of Arceneaux. The film seems to ask if King’s plea for a more equitable society was in vain: he is preaching to a city in ruin.
In all of these works, Arceneaux redeploys a variety of tropes, from blackface to Kubrick-esque Neanderthals, to test their resonance with a contemporary audience. But, if the 1981 reappropriation of blackface by Ben Vereen made the singer-dancer into a pariah, why has Arceneaux’s reappropriation of blackface received a favorable reception from critics? The answer may be found in the circumstances of the initial event, in which Vereen performed for the benefit of “Ronald Reagan and like 25,000 white Republicans,” in the words of Arceneaux. Even if Vereen’s tribute to Bert Williams had been broadcast in its entirety, it might still have provoked controversy for the simple reason that the performance had first to be approved by the inaugural committee. By contrast, Arceneaux’s adaptation of the performance is not an exercise in nostalgia, much less an institutionally sanctioned piece of political pageantry, but an examination of race and politics in our current moment.
Edgar Arceneaux: Written in Smoke and Fire continues at MIT List Visual Arts Center (20 Ames St, Cambridge, Mass.) through January 8, 2017.
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