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Edgar Arceneaux’s presentation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco consists of only a small selection of high-impact works. The exhibition opens with the Library of Black Lies (2016). The Library is housed in a small cabin-like structure with slatted walls and low ceilings. Narrow corridors are girded by mirrored bookshelves arranged in a labyrinthine twist. Strewn on the shelves are books made ancient—awash in black, though charred, or partially encased in a crystalline crust. Most of the titles are obscured, but of the ones you can catch there are satirical twists on the art historical canon (Germano Celant’s Arte Povera; now Fart Poverty), or books whose names have been similarly tweaked into new significance (Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film has become Framing Greyness: The Ashy Film on African Americans; René Descartes’ Discourse on Method now is a Discourse on Madness). This only resembles a library insofar as it is a collection of media. Through spatial and formal means, and incisive satire, Arceneaux has created a library that asks knowledge to be built by reassessment and reassembly of logic, of history, and of identity.
All while winding about in the library, the fanfare of Until, Until, Until… (2015–2017) rips through the walls from a darkened doorway at the back of the gallery. The voice of Johnny Carson: “I’m sure as you know at the turn of the century it was a segregated theater. And a black man in order to appear in a white man’s show had to put on a black face so no one would know. And one of the giant stars of that era in the Ziegfeld was Bert Williams… Here tonight to play tribute to Bert Williams is Ben Vereen.”
Until, Until, Until…, which debuted at Performa 15, is based on actor Ben Vereen’s 1981 performance for President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball. Vereen’s two-part production, inspired by famed vaudevillian Bert Williams, opened with a minstrel act—blackface and all. In the second act, Vereen sheds his blackface makeup and sings Williams’s “Nobody”—a conclusion meant as a criticism aimed at the mainly white and conservative gala audience. However, in the airing of the show, Vereen’s second act was edited out in lieu of a song-and-dance number by Donny and Marie Osmond. Vereen was excoriated.
Until, Until, Until… is a retelling of these events. YBCA’s incarnation is an expansion of the scene arranged for the original 2015 performance: an empty bar in the corner, the star-studded stage and, at stage right, an off-kilter vanity with a book—Nobody—resting on its edge. Beside the vanity, three spotlighted sequined pedestals wear hats: Blue Bert, Red Ronnie, and Green Vereen (all 2017). But the focal point is an expanse of sheer curtain bearing the projection of the debut Until performance, starring actor Frank Lawson. While watching Lawson’s performance from our seats, we inevitably look through the curtain—through him—to see a television playing distorted footage of Vereen’s 1981 performance. We look back at history through the contemporary. Lawson—who plays himself—Ben Vereen, Ben Vereen as Bert Williams (as well as Donny Osmond in a brief, but sarcastic, entr’acte duet) are rendered only as flimsy image and in this incarnation they truly have no body. Their lack of physical presence lends itself to echoing the lyrics of the 1905 song “Nobody,” made famous by Williams, and maybe more poignantly to a passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed everything and anything except me.”
Lawson cycles through rehearsal, performance, and reflection; he slides between personas with a quiet ease that, at times, confounds our ability to identify who he is in any given moment. We ride cascades of expression: sorrow becoming jest, jest twisting into pride, pride to shame, shame to eagerness to sorrow and so on. Through this blurring of intergenerational figures and stories, Arceneaux has constructed Until, Until, Until… as a hopeful redemption for a misunderstood moment and a resonant criticism of the present.
Now, history is an efficient and old machine, repeating its motions—the same stories—over and over despite being broken and rarely accepting new parts. And, just as we consume media, we consume the stories of history, however edited. Arceneaux’s presentation at YBCA is a reminder of the hysterics of a myopic history. That our consumption in every sense is not passive, it is a constant reconstitution of knowledge; it is both a performance for the present and a cross-examination between past and future.
Originally published in Carla issue 11.