by Michael P Coleman
Entertainment legend Ben Vereen is on a mission. He’s devoting his full attention to restoring the arts to kids in public schools. That road’s led him to Sacramento, and he’s been on it for awhile.
“I knew nothing about the arts when I was very young, growing up in Brooklyn,” the 69-year-old icon told me. “I came in contact with a few angels, teachers and administrators at my junior high school, who were trying to generate interest in the arts there. I remember sitting with one of my teachers as she tearfully read a letter from a kid in the Midwest who dreamed of being able to study the arts in school.”
“I realized early on how the arts could affect people’s lives,” he continued, “and how not everyone had access to a school like the one I went to.”
Vereen went on from the High School of the Performing Arts to conquer the Broadway stage, motion pictures and television, earning a Tony for his role in Pippin and an Emmy for his portrayal of Chicken George in the original Roots miniseries. But as he took the entertainment industry by storm, he never lost his zeal for connecting young people to the arts.
Photo courtesy of Isak Tiner
Now, he’s using his platform to restore interest in arts programs in Sacramento. After a successful launch of his Wellness Through the Arts (WTA) program in San Diego in 2014, Vereen’s new WTA Sacramento will award cash prizes to high school students in the performing arts, with an emphasis in theater arts, vocal music, and dance.
Sacramento-area students — many of whom are managing bullying, obesity, low self esteem and diabetes — were invited to describe their “best day” via a written essay or video expression. A panel of local professionals will evaluate the submissions, and eight finalists will be presented in a showcase on April 30th at Sacramento State, where Vereen will announce the winners and personally present two $400 awards to the winners. The showcase is open to the public.
Participants in this year’s WTA Sacramento are from Natomas Charter School, C.K. McClatchy High School, and Luther Burbank High School. The organization plans to engage with a number of other public schools and districts as they expand the program next year. Vereen envisions WTA programs in cities nationwide.
“I’m excited about coming to Sacramento,” Vereen shared. “We’re giving the arts back to kids who go to schools that do not have arts programs. It’s a silly thing, to me, to disconnect ourselves from that which created us. God, Allah, Buddha, Jesus…whatever you want to call Him…is the Creator. What the Creator creates is ‘art’. Studies have shown that kids who are denied art don’t pay attention as much to any of their academics. When they don’t have art, they’re less, not more.”
If you think Vereen sounds as much like a minister as a world-renowned entertainer, you’re not alone. I have rarely seen or heard someone more fired up about anything! Vereen told me he thought that if life hadn’t steered him towards the performing arts, he thought he might have wound up in the pulpit. He was wearing a baseball cap with the words “Spiritual Enforcer” emblazoned on it as we chatted, and I had to ask him about it.
“We’re enforcing love through the arts,” Vereen told me. “The hats are designed to move the arts back into the forefront. We’ll be selling the caps and an entire clothing line soon via http://www.benvereen.info/ with a part of the proceeds going towards the arts.”
“We’ve got to get people to realize the importance of the arts, and that life itself is an art form,” Vereen implored. “I’m trying to marry health and the arts, because to me it’s all one. A kid with a healthy mind has a healthy life.”
WTA Sacramento will be held Saturday, April 30th at 7pm at Sacramento State’s University Theatre. Tickets are available at 916-278-4323 or http://www.csus.edu/aba/hornettickets/
WTA Sacramento is being sponsored in part by the Northern California Filmmakers Coalition. More information on WTA Sacramento is available at wtasacramento.org
Look for more from Michael P Coleman’s conversation with Ben Vereen in the coming weeks at sacculturalhub.com.
Michael P Coleman is a Sacramento-based freelance writer.
Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com at 916-834-5567, or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP
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