Broadway legend Ben Vereen apologized Friday for “inappropriate” sexual conduct against young women in a 2015 production of Hair he directed at a community theater in Venice, Fla. The theater announced it will “strengthen” its sexual harassment policies, including reporting offenses to police.
The allegations against Vereen, 71, include sexual groping, unwanted kisses, aggressive hugs, naked acting exercises, hot-tub encounters at his residence, and lewd comments about the accusers’ weight, sex appeal and personal lives.
Vereen did not deny the claims in a statement sent to USA TODAY by his publicist, Lawrence Kopp.
“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 in the statement, which he later posted on Twitter.
The accusations from a half-dozen women, some named, some not, were detailed in a lengthy story Friday in New York’s Daily News after they were first discussed online by Chris Peterson of the OnStage blog, and after one of the accusers posted a statement on Facebook in November about various men she said had abused her, including Vereen.
“Ben Vereen, broadway legend, sexually harassed many people in my community theatre production of HAIR, kissed me after I️ said no, and threatened to use an NDA I️ signed (for the show’s creative process) if I️ told anyone,” Kaitlyn Terpstra, who was 22 at the time, said in the post.
None of the allegations were reported to Venice Police in Sarasota County, Fla. Chief of Police Tom Matmuller confirmed there is no record of an investigation of Vereen.
The Venice Theatre also issued a statement Friday saying officials there had been aware of a heated altercation at the theater at the time between Vereen and Terpstra, but only “recently” learned of the allegations of “compromising situations” at Vereen’s residence involving two of the actresses in the production.
“As a community theatre, Venice Theatre prides itself as a safe place to learn, work, and perform,” said the statement sent to USA TODAY by the theater’s executive director Murray Chase. “We are working to strengthen our sexual harassment policies and procedures, including reporting of them, to prevent any future occurrences.”
Chase said the theater did not contact the police about Vereen because, “from what we learned and after consulting an attorney, no laws were broken.”
Matmuller said that while it is not uncommon for cases of sexual battery to go unreported, his department would have taken a complaint and investigated it.
Vereen said in his statement that he sought during the production to create an environment that “replicated the themes of (Hair) during the rehearsal process.” (The 1969 classic stage musical famously features on-stage full nudity.)
“I have since come to understand that it is my conduct, not my intentions, which are relevant here,” Vereen’s statement said. “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.”
The accusers said Vereen used similar lines to get them naked in his hot tub.
“He gave this whole speech about how nudity was not inherently sexual,” Terpstra told The Daily News. “He made me feel that if I wasn’t mature enough to understand that, I wasn’t mature enough to be in Hair.”
At one point, she said, he put her on his lap while she was crying and she could feel his erection. She said he also asked her to perform oral sex and she agreed, feeling “confused,” she said.
“I just think at the time, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I didn’t want to do it, but I was intimidated and scared. He was being very intense and angry. He seemed very angry and offended,” she told The News.
She said she thought she needed his help and guidance for her career.
“And when he said nudity doesn’t have to be sexual, I was like, ‘OK, maybe this isn’t even sexual,’ ” she said. “Now I understand it was a power play. It was so calculated. It was like we were putty in his hands.”
Source: Maria Puente, USA TODAY
Photo Credit: Broadway Shows
Photo Credit: Capital Public Radio