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Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen hits OCCC's Visual and Performing Arts Center Theater Nov. 18.

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Ben Vereen, actor - ISAK TINER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • ISAK TINER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Ben Vereen, actor

Above almost all else, Ben Vereen is a gracious man.

The exceptionally talented actor, singer and dancer is known for his work on Broadway and in film and television, perhaps most notably in the role of Chicken George from the wildly popular and groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots.

Steppin’ Out with Ben Vereen, a show that makes its way Nov. 18 to Oklahoma City Community College’s Visual and Performing Arts Center Theater, 7777 S. May Ave., is a way for the award-winning actor, singer and dancer to pay tribute to his fans, many of whom have supported him for decades.

In the show, Vereen performs songs he’s well-known for, plus a few new tunes. He also shares personal, career-related tales with the audience.

“I talk about the journey [fans] have allowed me to have,” Vereen said during a recent phone interview with Oklahoma Gazette. “We tell stories and we have more of an intimate evening.”

Vereen, who is frequently seen smiling, said he is fortunate to do what he loves for a living and is forever indebted to those who have long supported his work not only for his employment, but also for shaping his outlook on life.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for them,” he said.

Always a crowd

Vereen spoke with the Gazette after finishing a week of shooting new comedy series Making History, set to air on the Fox network sometime in 2017.

Recently, audiences might have seen him portraying Dr. Everett von Scott in The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, Fox’s remake of the 1975 cult musical horror-comedy.

He also joined Broadway thespians, including Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, onstage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention to perform a rendition of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

“It’s exactly the message this nation needs to hear,” he said.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Vereen to take part in such a significant event in front of millions of viewers, he said.

But the actor always finds an audience, even when he’s on a closed film set.

“You have to remember, even when it’s not live, there’s still a crew,” he said. “There are the costumers, the caterers, the producers who are behind the scenes watching it. You know what one of the greatest compliments is? When one of the crew hands or a grip comes up and goes, ‘Wow man! That was great.’”

Vereen sometimes finds himself marveling at how much it takes to make a scene appear effortless.

He said he is as grateful for the hundreds of behind-the-scenes personnel he has worked with through his career as he is for his many fans.

“I sit there and I go, ‘Wow. Look at all of these people running around like bees to set it up for one shot,’” he said.

Creative importance

The actor spent his teenage years at Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts.

His experiences there taught him an appreciation for arts education.

He has long been a vocal advocate for art’s impact on youth and society.

Recently, Vereen was recruited to join Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit proponent of the public and educational art programs, as an arts advocate.

Oklahoma arts supporters know all too well that many fine arts programs have been some of the first to be cut when education funding takes a hit. Vereen said that is the wrong approach.

“In the Bible, it says, ‘In the beginning, God created,’” he said. “It doesn’t say, ‘God manufactured.’”

Vereen said one of the most significant things advocates can do to preserve arts education programs is vote for public officials who share those same interests.

“We the people pay the government, and we allow them to cut away what we need, what we want,” he said. “If they need to make their cuts to do certain things, we have to rearrange our agenda to make the things we want happen.”

Vereen launched two programs, Wellness Through the Arts (WTA) and the Ben Vereen Awards, to provide scholarship opportunities and support for youth who are involved in the arts in California’s San Diego County.

He said he would also like to connect with an Oklahoma City school while here to speak with local theater and arts students.

The actor said while teachers shape America’s youth, everyone can take a role to help foster childhood creativity.

“Our job as elders or as parents is to guide them and take that creativity and guide it to where it’s going to be a positive outlet,” he said.

Above all, though, Vereen said it is important to make sure our creative passions are used to unite us as one diverse body of humanity.

“We are all walking, talking art pieces,” he said, “and if we treat ourselves that way, then we would have a better society, I like to think.”

Learn more at tickets.occc.edu.

Print headline: Stepping up, Celebrated theater and film actor Ben Vereen plans a night of music and positivity for longtime fans in Oklahoma City.

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