Positively Ben Vereen
January 11, 2012
Two minutes and 20 seconds. That’s all it took with Ben Vereen before I finally realized I had somehow landed in the middle of an interview track meet with the Broadway legend running in the lead and me struggling to stay close.
“Am I going too fast?” asks Vereen, stopping just long enough between rattling off his life experiences to check if I was still in the vicinity.
Not at all, Ben, I say reassuringly, choking on his dust while desperately trying to quicken my note-taking pace. I’m ... keeping ... up.
Even at the ripe age of 65, Vereen remains a blur of positive activity. There are no wasted moments in his life, no standing and admiring himself in the mirror. As long as there is a breath to be taken, Vereen’s body will be off and running in some direction, and doing a lot of good.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘If you stay still for too long, son, they’ll throw dirt on you,’” says Vereen, recalling lessons learned during his formative years in Brooklyn. “So early on, I realized I had to keep moving.’”
Over the years, his non-stop motor and can-do attitude have afforded him the opportunity to showcase his considerable talents as a television and film actor, dancer, singer and motivational speaker on stages all over the world. They’ve also allowed him to remain upbeat while dealing with serious health issues and personal tragedies such as his daughter Naja’s automobile accident and death in 1987.
“What has always helped me are my love and my passion for the arts and for life,” he says. “I’ve also had encouraging people along the way, to prod me along. And I’ve also relied upon my own faith, realizing something else was guiding me to just go and do.”
For the Tony Award-winner of Broadway musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Pippin, part of that “go and do” guidance includes bringing his fast-paced act to the Islands this month. Chock-full of song, dance and inspirational and humorous stories, Ben Vereen in Concert is a one-man show featuring performances on the four major Hawaiian Islands, including an 8 p.m. Jan. 28 date at Leeward Community College. For tickets, call LCC Theatre at 455-0385.
Besides his shows, Vereen plans to meet with faculty and students from the music and dance departments at Aiea and Nanakuli high schools.
“I hope to inspire young artists from Hawaii to pursue their dreams,” says Vereen, who many still remember for the Chicken George character he played in Alex Haley’s 1970s miniseries Roots. “Many of them get into the arts and for their own reasons don’t pursue it, and they get discouraged. Sometimes it even scars their lives.”
Both his shows and talks offer encouraging advice to youths on developing what he calls “the whole person.”
“Years ago in San Francisco, I had the honor of doing the Charles Gordone play called No Place To Be Somebody. In the play, there’s a line that I love: ‘It’s the body that keeps us standing, it’s the soul that keeps us going, it’s the spirit that will take us through.’
“That’s become my mantra, and I try to pass that mantra on to young people.”
I somehow got Vereen to sit still long enough to further discuss his positive outlook on life, his health issues and a certain famous godson.
MN: You’re constantly motivating others and trying to lift their spirits. When was the last time you were discouraged?
BV: This morning.
BV: (laughing) No. But I have been discouraged before. It’s just that whenever that happened, I wouldn’t let it become a career move. What I mean by that is too many young artists become discouraged and then become negative about everything and it kills their chances for a career. For me, I choose not to do that. I choose to keep going.
MN: Is that attitude what got you through that terrible automobile accident in Malibu back in 1992 an accident that resulted in such extensive rehabilitation that you had to relearn how to walk, talk and sing again? Is it what got you through the shock of discovering you were a type 2 diabetic in 2007?
BV: I never thought of my car accident as a debilitating situation, even though the doctors told me I should really start thinking about another career. I had a tracheotomy; I had a broken left leg. They had even taken my spleen. But in my mind, I was like, I got a show to do on Saturday. It took 10 months, but I finally got back on stage. That was always the spiritual get-on-with-it attitude I’ve tried to maintain all my life.
As for diabetes, I didn’t know the signals. I didn’t know that having a dry mouth, being fatigued all the time, and going to the bathroom and urinating a lot were all signs that something was wrong. But that isn’t surprising since most of us grow up only being taught how to make a living, and not how to live! When I got the news that I was diabetic on Christmas Day of that year, I basically had a choice: I could either go home and cry or I could look at this as a challenge and an opportunity. I chose the opportunity to help educate others, to change their lifestyles. It’s one of the reasons I helped start the S.T.A.N.D program, or Start Taking Action Now for Diabetes, which raises awareness of the disease.
MN: Speaking of helping others, you’ve been instrumental in guiding the career of your godson, R&B singer and stage actor Usher. How did your paths intersect and what was your first impression of him?
BV: My youngest daughter Karon had been hanging out with him and she showed me a video of him one day singing at a park with his pants down to his knees and asked me what I thought. I said, well the first thing is he’s got to pull up his pants! Later on, she gave Usher my tapes and I would work with him on dance moves. One day, he called me up and said, Hey
Pops, I want you to listen to something.
And he played me a song called You
Make Me Wanna. I turned to my daughter and said, get ready because this is going to blow up! And the rest, as they say, is history.
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