Ben Vereen came into the theater world at the forefront of diverse casting. The make-up of his first Broadway show, Hair, was one-third African-American, a radical choice in 1968. Then he went on to play Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, certainly an unconventional move for a western production about the biblical tale. The song-and-dance man surprised the world when he took on a dramatic role playing Chicken George in the 1977 TV miniseries Roots, which exposed the nation to many untold truths about slavery. These productions, over 40 years ago, paved the way for shows today, like the Broadway musical Hamilton, which is raising eyebrows and earning praise for its color-blind casting choices.

With all the controversy surrounding the Oscar nominations this year, we asked Mr. Vereen in a recent one-on-one interview about Hamilton, the Oscars and his thoughts on the state of diversity in entertainment.

He told us that throughout his career, although he has faced his share of challenges, he has tried to not let racial issues become road blocks. "I don't look at it as a struggle. If I look at it as a struggle, I'm hung up in it. I just move past it and move through it. I do not listen to what man has to say. I listen to what spirit is doing. And that's what's happening now."

Hamilton, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical currently playing at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York City, is inspired by the biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

It is being touted for its ethnically diverse cast, with African Americans and Latinos playing roles typically portrayed by white men.

Diversity and Hamilton

Vereen weighed in on Hamilton and the contribution it is making to the theater world. "What I loved about that show was you go in and you see diversity… It's about the spirit of the people, not the ethnicity of the people, the racial tone of the people.

It's about the ability to bring the truth of what they’re saying to the forefront of those they’re playing."

When it came to the Oscars, the Tony-award winning star of Pippin compared humanity to a flower garden full of different blooms. "We are the flowers of the creator. Why not show us all in our splendor?

And that's what the Oscars had the opportunity to do. To show diversity to the world… In America, we are a country of diverse people and so therefore being the melting pot we must express the melting pot in all our endeavors."

While he says it is the Academy’s job to mirror the diversity of our nation, and our world, the viewers also have a role in bringing about change. "The public’s job is to demand more diversity. Demand that the writers write more diverse roles and get the networks to see that and make it more diverse for everybody."

He continued, "We no longer look at somebody like they’re some sort of fear factor because we know nothing about them. But if you told all of our stories and gave all of the equal opportunity of expressing it, then we would have, I believe, a better world without fear of one another.

Like the garden of flowers, which are so beautiful. And we are that garden. We are that garden."

Ben Vereen is performing in Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz at The Lisa Smith Wengler Center for the Arts at Pepperdine University on Tuesday, February 2 at 8pm. For more information, visit Pepperdine's official website.For more information about the actor and his Wellness Through the Arts and Spiritual Enforcer programs visit his website.

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