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BEN FROM THE BLOCK

Award-winning Ben Vereen returns to play Brooklyn

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Ben Vereen’s career as a singer, dancer and actor has taken him all over the world, but his heart still belongs in Brooklyn.

Vereen was born and raised here, and now lives in DUMBO. Which is why he’s so excited about his upcoming one-man show at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts on April 5.

"I’m proud of Brooklyn. To see all that’s happening in Brooklyn is really special. Bravo Brooklyn! It’s good to be back home," Vereen told GO Brooklyn. He spoke by phone from Florida en route to Los Angeles and a spot on "Hollywood Squares." Vereen said the last time he performed in Brooklyn was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a concert with the St. Mark’s choir.

The actor, dancer and singer is widely known for his work on stage [opposite Judd Hirsch in "I’m Not Rappaport" (2002), and in "Hair" (1969), "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1971) and "Pippin" (1972)] as well as on screen, both large and small in "All That Jazz" (1979), "Roots" (1977) and "Webster" (1983).

His role in "Pippin" garnered him the 1973 Tony Award for Best Actor in a musical and a Drama Desk Award. But Vereen, who has a wry sense of humor, says all work has one thing in common - "employment."

On a more serious note, he concedes that his special love is live stage. He continues to appear in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Lake Tahoe and throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.

"Live stage is being made as you go along," he says. "You feel the energy. There’s nothing like a live audience."

Vereen began his career when he was growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and singing in Brooklyn churches with Mary Edy and her husband, the Rev. E. Edy, whose choir traveled around the borough. But he also loved to dance, and eventually, he "danced around the living room" so much that his mother enrolled him at the now defunct Dale/Greene Dance Studio on Flatbush Avenue.

Vereen’s first stage performance, he said, was in 1965 at the off-off-Broadway Greenwich Mews Theater in Langston Hughes’ "Prodigal Son." Today, looking back at his nearly 40-year-old career, Vereen, 56, who is a father of five and grandfather of four, has only good things to say about his life and his profession.

"Everyone I’ve worked with has been good," he says. "You learn from the good, what’s good, and you learn from the bad what not to do."

In his Celebrities Series concert at Brooklyn Center, Vereen will be "paying tribute to people like Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra and Bob Fosse." He will be backed by a five-piece band.

"It’s going to be really sweet. We’re going to have a good time," he predicts.

Vereen’s youthful exuberance - "At 56, I’m just starting out," he says - has led him to work for many philanthropic causes, especially those involving young people.

"If we plant the right seeds, tomorrow will be better," he says. "If you put out good things, then you’ll get good things back. That’s part of our responsibility as entertainers."

Vereen works with organizations like UNICEF, The American Heart Association and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Association.

In recognition of his philanthropic work, Vereen has received many humanitarian awards and honorary degrees, including a doctorate from St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights.

In 1991, Vereen spearheaded Celebrities for a Drug Free America, which raised more than $300,000 for drug rehabilitation centers, educational programs and inner city community-based projects.

"We’ve lost too many young people," said Vereen.

The actor knows the pain of losing a child. Vereen’s 16-year-old daughter died in a car accident in 1987. And Vereen barely survived an accident in 1992, when he was struck by a car on the Pacific Coast Highway, two miles from his Malibu home. Vereen underwent a lengthy rehabilitation after sustaining head and internal injuries and a broken leg.

Vereen, who characterizes himself as a "seeker and a searcher," believes spirituality has been the biggest influence in his life. This is reflected in his view of the time ahead of him.

"I don’t know what’s going to be in the future," Vereen says. "But I know who our future belongs to. And that’s God."

Additional reporting by Lisa J. Curtis.

 

Ben Vereen will perform April 5 at 8 pm at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College, Walt Whitman Theater (one block from the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand avenues). Tickets are $45. For tickets, call the box office at (718) 951-4500 or TicketMaster at (212) 307-7171.

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