“We knew we were doing something very important, and we wanted to be authentic in our presentation,” he says of the eight-night adaptation of Alex Haley’s epic book that chronicled his family history beginning with Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century black man who was sold into slavery.
Vereen, a Tony Award winner for his role in the original Broadway cast of “Pippin,” will talk about “The Civil Rights Movement and the Making of ‘Roots’” at Tuskegee University’s Chapel on Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. The Black History Month event is free and open to the public.
For Vereen, it’s an opportunity to talk about a highlight of his long and illustrious career as well as remind people of a story they should never forget.
“It’s our history,” he says. “Alex Haley, in his brilliance, wrote a book about his family, and it’s a reflection of all of our African American families.”
As big as “Roots” was – it drew an estimated 135 million viewers and earned 37 Emmy nominations, including one for Vereen – it’s just one highlight in a career filled with highlights for the 73-year-old Vereen.
Vereen’s official press biography is 19 pages long. His stage work includes 15 Broadway shows (most recently as the Wizard in “Wicked”), and he’s known for his work in movies (“All That Jazz,” “Funny Lady,” “Sweet Charity”) and TV (most recently in “Bull,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Star” and “Sneaky Pete”). In addition, Vereen travels the country with his trio performing the concert “Steppin’ Out.”
Much of this came after an accident in 1992 when Vereen was struck by a car (driven by record producer David Foster) while walking along the highway in Malibu. Vereen was critically injured, and months of rehabilitation followed.
“I share that story a lot, the power of prayer,” he says. “The power of the divine – call it Allah, Buddha, Jesus, whatever you want – it works.”
The actor, singer and director has no plans to slow down, either. He’s working on a show that would bring him back to Broadway. A Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother has the performer excited about another new cause.
“I’ve aligned myself with Care for the Homeless, which supplies medical attention for the homeless for free,” Vereen says. “It’s time we took the homeless situation in our country seriously.”
To raise awareness for Care for the Homeless, Vereen is planning a concert in October in New York, backed by the New York City Police Department jazz band.
“I’m trying to fuse the community and the police department,” he says. “Their job is a tough one, and most of them have not been trained on how to deal with the homeless. We’re trying to show there’s a partnership there.”
But first, he’ll come to Tuskegee, celebrating Black History Month, which he likens to the Passover Seder of his “Jewish brothers and sisters.”
“This is the month that we should talk about atrocities, talk about family and talk about the gains we have to make and things we have to do in order to go forward,” Vereen says. “It’s important that we recognize and honor those who went before us who paved the way.”