Ben Vereen goes back to his roots

In the much buzzed-about film "Top Five," opening in South Florida theaters this weekend, director and star Chris Rock plays a comedian who wants to become a serious actor and change public perception about his one career-defining role. Rock's star-laden ensemble cast includes one member who thinks differently.

"I care deeply about Chicken George. I wouldn't be where I am without him. I wouldn't be Ben Vereen," the accomplished song-and-dance man says of his most widely seen role.

Every so often, something happens that transforms popular culture, changes the dialogue we have about race and forces society to ask itself new questions. Nearly 40 years ago, Ben Vereen was in the thick of it.

The 1977 debut of the ABC miniseries "Roots" was a landmark moment in television history, its primetime depiction of slavery, which played out over eight consecutive January nights, captured 37 Emmy nominations and nine awards, along with a nation's attention. Its finale still has the third-highest Nielsen ratings for a TV show.

Among the many stars of the series, based on author Alex Haley's 1976 novel, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," was Vereen, in the role of Chicken George, a descendant of the slave introduced in the story's opening episode, Kunta Kinte, played by LeVar Burton.

Vereen was already a star when he joined the cast of "Roots," a Tony Award-winning entertainer acclaimed for his role as Judas in the original 1971 Broadway production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and his lead turn in Bob Fosse's "Pippin." Those skills will be on vivid display when Vereen performs Dec. 16-17 at Jazziz Nightlife in Boca Raton, a songs-and-stories show named for his album "Stepping Out Live," with favorites such as "Defying Gravity," "My Funny Valentine," "I Got a Lot of Livin' To Do" and a medley of Frank Sinatra chestnuts.

But if Chicken George obscured the fame he achieved on the stage, Vereen nevertheless treasures his part in a pop-culture phenomenon that started a national conversation about race.

"People were shocked to see what they saw," Vereen says of "Roots" and its unflinching portrayal of beatings, rape and other forms of degradation endured by generations of descendants of Kunta Kinte from 1750 to Reconstruction.

"My Jewish friends had Hitler, and he was evil, but he also was a fool, and such an egotist that he made movies of what he was doing in the Holocaust," Vereen says. "So there was a record of that horror. There was no such record of slavery. 'Roots' started a conversation, and that was important."

Speaking from his home in New York, Vereen, 68, is relentlessly upbeat — "How else can I be? It beats the alternative," he says, laughing — even when it comes to the new discussion of race going on around the country after the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.

"I'm happy to see [protesters] out there … all kinds of people. They need to be heard," he says. "We need to encourage dialogue."

Ben Vereen will perform "Steppin' Out Live" 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16-17 at Jazziz Nightlife, 201 Plaza Real, in Boca Raton. Tickets cost $35, $65 and $85. Call 561-300-0730 or visit Jazziz.com/Nightlife.

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