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Culture and Trump: Artist Edgar Arceneaux on inauguration day at LACMA recalls Reagan's inaugural gala

Culture and Trump: Artist Edgar Arceneaux on inauguration day at LACMA recalls Reagan's inaugural gala
Edgar Arceneaux takes questions from the audience after a screening of "Until, Until, Until..." at the Bing Theater at LACMA. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Late Friday on inauguration day, several dozen people arrived at the L.A. County Museum of Art's Bing Theater to consider the transition of power to a new president. But it had nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Instead, the event was focused on Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural gala, which was hosted by Johnny Carson and aired on ABC News.

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The museum was screening artist Edgar Arceneaux's film "Until, Until, Until…," which examined a controversial song-and-dance routine created by performer Ben Vereen for the Reagan inaugural. In tribute to vaudevillian Bert Williams, Vereen had donned blackface. But when ABC cut a key portion of his performance from the televised broadcast, Vereen's intentions were misinterpreted, and there was furious backlash.

Arceneaux created a work of theater in New York City based on Vereen's inaugural act. The movie screened at LACMA is a filmed version of one of Arceneaux's performances.

"Until, Until, Until…" was shown for free at the museum. LACMA curator Jose Luis Blondet described it as "our counter inaugurational event." The crowd, filled with artists, writers, actors and aficionados, gave him hearty applause

The work's examination of the volatile intersection of race and politics was certainly magnified on the day in which Trump, who made controversial statements about Muslims, African Americans and Mexicans throughout the campaign, was sworn into office. In introducing the film, Arceneaux was visibly rattled.

"Watching Obama get on a helicopter and leave D.C. and hand the key to the White House to…" he said, unable to complete the thought.

After the screening, Arceneaux took questions. But he also arranged for a little surprise. Organizational psychologist Roberto Vargas took to the stage with a drum to give audience members — many of whom seemed rattled by the Trump inauguration — a morale booster.

Vargas asked those gathered to share their worries, to name the things that inspired gratitude and to make a commitment for how they would effect change.

One woman said she was committed to "bringing humor back."

A man shouted, "I commit to not giving up."

Vargas played his drum and sent everyone off with some words of uplift: "We do our art, we do our work, we do our life to make a better world."

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This is one of several inaugural weekend dispatches in which I follow L.A.'s cultural institutions, big and small, to see how they are responding — or not — to the advent of the Trump administration.

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