Celebrating Centennial

Ben Vereen at Centennial Hall

Ben Vereen said that the first time he received a Tony nomination, he wondered who Tony was.

"I was so touched that my peers recognized that I had something there, so I was quite honored," he said.

With more than 40 years in show business, Vereen, 65, is perhaps best-known for his role as Chicken George in the television miniseries Roots. He has also had roles on Grey's Anatomy, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and House of Payne, and he's had a recurring role in How I Met Your Mother.

On Broadway, he won a Tony for Bob Fosse's Pippin. Vereen has performed in shows including Wicked, Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, A Christmas Carol and I'm Not Rappaport. In January, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

On Saturday, Vereen will perform his Thanks for the Memory show at UA Centennial Hall. Through dance, video and song, the production highlights the various stages of his career. Also featured with Vereen and his musicians will be the UA Studio Jazz Ensemble, and dance and voice students from the College of Fine Arts. The show—developed specifically for the UA in tribute to the 75th anniversary of Centennial Hall—is the culmination of a week-long residency by Vereen in the College of Fine Arts.

Vereen has five honorary doctoral degrees, including one from the UA, so he said Tucson is holy ground for him.

"I'm excited about performing for (the Tucson audience). It's going to be a hot evening; I mean, it's going to be fantastic," he said. "U of A, U of A, all the way."

Vereen said performing is all about helping the audience members better understand themselves. "Broadway is a reflection of society," Vereen said. "It gives the artist the chance to reflect back to (the audience) what is in their minds that they cannot express themselves."

Vereen's passions extend beyond the stage. After he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, he became an advocate for diabetes awareness.

"A lot of my friends in the industry, we live with diabetes, but a lot of people in society feel that it's a bad word to say," Vereen said. As someone who lives with the disease, he said he's noticed how people with diabetes "don't have a voice."

Vereen has teamed with the nonprofit group Taking Control of Your Diabetes to develop Start Taking Action Now for Diabetes, or STAND. The program encourages people to communicate with their doctors by asking the right questions and to change the "dialogue" about diabetes, Vereen said. "You're not suffering. You're living with diabetes."

Vereen also advocates for young people through the Broadway Theatre Project, which trains them in the arts business.

"I'm passionate about changing the dialogue of young people to have more sustainability in their lives by making the right choices," he said. "I'm trying to get people to realize that all of their life is part of the arts."

He predicted that Broadway is "going to evolve into what the times reflect. People always need a place to express their art."

Though Vereen calls himself a "Fosse-ite," he said he also admires what younger artists bring to the arts today, such as hip-hop. "I think that's very beautiful," he said.

Vereen said he often tells people that if they were to take a concrete slab and lay it on the ground, they would eventually "be able to look back and see a single grass (blade) growing through that concrete, because creativity cannot be stopped."

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