During a phone interview one morning last week, the ever-jocular veteran entertainer Ben Vereen was asked how he stays so optimistic. He answered with a folk parable, the origins of which aren't definitively known but are often attributed to Cherokee Indians.
There are two wolves inside of each of us, a grandfather tells his grandson. There's a good wolf that represents elements like love and a bad wolf that represents elements like hatred. After the grandson asks his grandfather which wolf wins, the grandfather says, "The one you feed."
"We've got to [feed] the arts because art is life itself," Vereen said.
The 70-year-old performer has been feeding his good wolf in a career that spans five decades and crosses all kinds of genres — from stage to television to film.
On March 11, he'll show off some of that venerable diversity when he headlines Dominican University's Annual Trustee Benefit Concert and Gala on March 11. The event is held each year to raise money for scholarships.
Vereen said his visit is part of what he's calling his "gratitude tour."
"It's because of my fan base that I've been able to stay busy," he said. "I tell young people all the time to be courteous to your fans because they made you. They decided to listen, to watch and to buy. I'm still doing what I love because they allowed me to."
Vereen was only 18 years old when he landed a role as a dancer in an off-Broadway production called The Prodigal Son. In 1968, he made his Broadway debut when he played the alternating roles of Hud and Claude in the Tony Award-winning musical Hair.
Since then, Vereen has been nominated for Tony, Golden Globe and Emmy awards, winning two Tonys. His body of work includes commanding performances in pop-culture staples like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Roots miniseries, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gray's Anatomy. Currently, Vereen stars as Porter in the crime drama Sneaky Pete, which streams on Amazon.
When he isn't working, Vereen said, he's educating young people through an organization he founded called Wellness Through the Arts, which utilizes arts education "to empower youth" who face bullying, obesity, low self-esteem and diabetes, according to the organization's website.
Vereen said more people have to take ownership of arts education, adding that he'd like to see more aggressive resistance to funding cuts made in the area of arts education.
"We pay for this," he said. "We give money to the government and to the schools, so we have to take responsibility and say, 'No, you can't do that.' We must own our own and give our young people the tools they need to make a better world for us."
Dominican's Annual Trustee Benefit Concert and Gala will take place on March 11 at 5 p.m., in Dominican University's Lund Auditorium, 7900 Division St., River Forest. Tickets for the concert are $47, $67 and $87. For information on gala tickets, call 708-524-6284 or visit www.dom.edu.