Broadway Actor Ben Vereen Accused of Sexual Assault
"Now I understand it was a power play," said one actress of the Tony winner, who did not deny the accusations from multiple women involved in a Florida production of 'Hair' in 2015.
Multiple women have accused Broadway actor Ben Vereen of sexual harassment and assault.
While directing a community theater production of Hair in Florida in 2015, the Tony winner allegedly forced unwanted kisses and other physical contact, and propositioned various young women in the cast, according to the New York Daily News. Vereen did so while repeatedly citing the musical’s content, as Hair portrays the hippie culture and sexual revolution of the 1960s and includes a nude scene. He also did so under the guise that Vereen, who acted in the musical’s original Broadway run from 1968 to 1972, would bring the show on tour and catapult the volunteer cast to new career heights.
During rehearsals, Vereen zoomed in on the cast’s female actors, “groping and kissing on the women, ogling their bodies in a really obvious way," said male castmember Zach Wasson. Vereen also conducted exercises that required the women to sit in the middle of a circle to be asked invasive personal questions, allegedly to reach creative breakthroughs. The women who rejected his advances "would inevitably be humiliated in the circle later,” added Wasson.
Two women — Kaitlyn Terpstra, then 22 years old, and Kim, then 23 — shared separate but similar accounts of being asked to join Vereen at his Florida rental home for “private rehearsals.” During the visits, Vereen, then about to turn 69 years old, pressed his erect penis into their legs without warning, and convinced them to get into his backyard hot tub while naked.
“He gave this whole speech about how nudity was not inherently sexual. ‘That’s not what it’s about.’ He made me feel that if I wasn't mature enough to understand that, I wasn’t mature enough to be in Hair,” said Terpstra. Kim added, “He basically told both of us, ‘Get over yourself. Nudity doesn’t have to be sexual.’ If we asked questions or hesitated, we were the ones making it weird.”
In the hot tub, Vereen would repeat his rehearsal technique. “He was acting as my mentor, asking me about my parents, then that same night, he put me on his lap while I was crying, and I felt his erection,” Terpstra recalled. “He asked me, ‘Feel that?’ It was terrifying. I said, 'Feel what?' I wanted to act like I didn't. I pushed myself off with a laugh. Then later, he asked, ‘Do you think I want to fuck you?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and he got angry. He said, ‘Well, I don't, and that's unfortunate.' He made me feel like I had my mind in the gutter.”
Kim said that when she was in the hot tub, Vereen asked her to perform oral sex on him. She passively obliged with confusion. “I just felt powerless because I thought I really needed his help and guidance. And when he said nudity doesn't have to be sexual, I was like, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t even sexual,’” she explained. “Now I understand it was a power play. It was so calculated. It was like we were putty in his hands.”
Another actress, Vera, then 27 years old, went to Vereen's rental home for a rehearsal with two male castmembers, but was held back by the director afterward. “He proceeded to wrap his arms around me and lay me down on the couch. I was shocked,” she said. “He kept whispering things into my ear like ‘Relax’ and ‘Give yourself to me.’ After the initial shock wore off I stopped his advances. He was never pleasant to me again.”
Vereen — who won a Tony for his performance in Pippin, and has also appeared in productions of Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar and Jelly's Last Jam — had the cast strip for a rehearsal exercise related to the musical’s nude scene, and joined in himself; afterward, he allegedly whispered to Kim, “Do you want to have sex with me?” He also allegedly forcibly hugged and kissed other actresses in the cast: Actress Ariella Pizarro, then 22 years old, said he pressed himself against her while hugging her and later texted her, "Yo (sic) felt so good tonight."
Vereen — who also once defended the behavior of Bill Cosby — did not deny the accusations in a statement, which he tweeted on Friday morning. “I would like to apologize directly to the female cast members of the musical Hair for my inappropriate conduct when I directed the production in 2015,” he said. “While it was my intention to create an environment that replicated the themes of that musical during the rehearsal process, I have since come to understand that it is my conduct, not my intentions, which are relevant here. So I am not going to make any excuses because the only thing that matters here is acknowledging and apologizing for the effects of my conduct on the lives of these women.
“Going forward, my having come to terms with my past conduct will inform all my future interactions not only with women, but with all individuals,” he continued. “I hope these women will find it in their hearts to accept my sincere apology and forgive me.”