Vernel Bagneris was the third child of Gloria Diaz Bagneris and Lawrence Bagneris, Sr. Bagneris’s mother was a housewife and a deeply religious woman who “quietly outclassed most people,” and his father was a playful, creative man, a World War II veteran, and lifelong postal clerk. Bagneris grew up in the tightly knit, predominantly Creole Seventh Ward to a family of free people of color that had been in New Orleans since 1750. From the age of six, he had a knack for winning popular dance contests, and during christenings and jazz funerals, he learned more traditional music and dance.
By the mid-1960s the once-beautiful, tree-lined neighborhood in which he was raised fell victim to the U.S. government’s program of urban renewal, known colloquially in the area as “Negro removal.” A freeway overpass was constructed over a thriving neighborhood, inviting crime and eventually shuttering businesses and changing the community. Trees were uprooted, homes were razed, the promenade was destroyed, and a neighborhood diaspora was in effect. Bagneris described it this way: “Imagine the Champs Elysées minus all trees, with a brooding highway held up by concrete poles and bare, unplanted dirt as its walkways.” The Bagneris family ultimately moved to Gentilly, along with many other residents of the Seventh Ward.
Bagneris was in the advanced placement track at St. Augustine High School, an institution committed to instilling dignity and respect in its young men, despite the segregation in nearly every aspect of their lives in New Orleans. At fifteen, he and his compatriots were encouraged by the school leaders to quietly protest segregation at bowling alleys and drugstore counters citywide. Bagneris graduated in 1967, when overt instances of Jim Crow had diminished but seating was still segregated on public transportation, in restaurants and restrooms, and at water fountains. In the fall of 1967 he headed directly to a seminary to study for the priesthood where he stayed for three long days. “I didn’t go there to meditate,” said Bagneris. “I went to be of service. That was the confusion.”
Bagneris was admitted to Xavier University, a predominantly-black, Catholic university in New Orleans, at which his older siblings had also matriculated. Bagneris declared sociology as his major, but during his sophomore year, his girlfriend cajoled him into auditioning for the university's theater. To his surprise, Bagneris was cast as Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew. Based on his success in that production, Bagneris decided to pursue a career on the stage. Though he’d never even attended the theater before his first audition, by his junior year he was writing, directing, and producing his own plays. The Free Southern Theater, which toured in rural, underprivileged areas of the South (and eventually based itself in New Orleans), performed two of Bagneris’s plays while he was an undergraduate.
Bagneris became interested in avant-garde theater methods and, upon his graduation in 1972, traveled to Amsterdam to learn more about the Bread and Love experimental theater group. He returned to New Orleans and worked day jobs. He’d brought with him highly experimental European scripts and staged them in his hometown. He produced and directed Samuel Beckett’s Endgame on a double bill with Eugène Ionesco’s The Lesson in a photo gallery, was awarded an artist-in-residence grant by the Arts Council of New Orleans, and made a foray into integrated theater company in the French Quarter called Gallery Circle. By 1972, he had won two Best Actor awards in New Orleans.
In 1976, Bagneris saw a play in New York City that would change his life: Will Holt’s Me and Bessie, a one-woman show about the blues legend Bessie Smith. After seeing the show, Bagneris determined to produce a show in a similar style that would feature the City of New Orleans as the main character. Bagneris spent a year creating the show; between roles as voodoo priests in independent movies and producing and starring in Edward Albee plays, Bagneris conducted research, developed oral histories, and interviewed his own grandmother. Then, for six months, Bagneris and his troupe prepared for a one-night-only production of One Mo’ Time, a musical he had written based on black vaudeville performers in New Orleans. Their limited run show quickly turned into three nights a week at the Toulouse Theatre in the French Quarter, with James Carroll Booker III playing piano in the lobby before each show. Then, by chance, a New York producer saw it and promised to move it to the city. In October 1979, One Mo’ Time went to the Village Gate in New York, where it played for three and a half years, spinning a host of internationally touring companies, including a royal command performance in Britain for Queen Elizabeth II. The show earned a Grammy nomination for Best Cast Album in 1980 and was nominated for Society of West End Theatres (SWET) awards for Outstanding Achievement in a Musical, Best Musical, and Best Actress in a Musical in 1982. Through One Mo’ Time, Bagneris met the dance masters Honi Coles and Charles “Cookie” Cook; however, he cites Pepsi Bethel of the P.B. Authentic Dance Ensemble, who had worked in independent black films during the 1930s and 1940s, as his dance mentor. After their meeting, Bethel choreographed every show Bagneris directed. “My interest was not in preserving traditional musical theater. It just so happens that my culture has a lot of music and dance in it.” It was Bagneris’s father, who, after seeing One Mo’ Time, encouraged Bagneris to work on Creole themes. “I’m always being asked what I am. Even Allen Toussaint asked me once, ‘Where do you come from — Mars?’ No, Allen, I’m from the 7th Ward.”
After the success of One Mo’Time, Bagneris continued stage explorations with Staggerlee in 1985; Further Mo’, the sequel to One Mo’ Time, in 1990; and Cy Coleman’s The Life on Broadway in 1998. In 1995, Bagneris received an Obie Award for Jelly Roll!, his portrait of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. Other notable performances included a 2004 revival of Bubbling Brown Sugar, in which Bagneris starred with Diahann Carroll.
During this time, he also worked in film, including Pennies from Heaven (1981), Down by Law (1986), and Ray (2004), the award-winning film adaptation of Ray Charles's life. In this film, Bagneris worked as choreographer and played the character Dancin’ Al. Bagneris also played opposite Ossie Davis in what was to be Davis’s last film, the independent feature Proud (2004). One Mo’ Time was revived on Broadway in 2002 and again in New Orleans in 2006. Bagneris acted as the voice of numerous jazz figures on Public Radio International’s Riverwalk Jazz program in 1993, recreating the lives of Bunk Johnson Danny Barker, Jelly Roll Morton, and others. In the program for a special performance in the new auditorium at the Library of Congress, Bagneris was proclaimed “a master of the American vernacular.”
In October 2005, just two months after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, Bagneris returned to live in New Orleans, ultimately settling in the French Quarter. He said, "It was an emotional choice to return to New Orleans. The whole thing was about feeling needed, to assure that certain things about your cultural history would be preserved. Besides, my heart has always been in New Orleans. Once you’re dipped in it, you’re it."
When Bagneris remounted One Mo’ Time in New Orleans in December 2006, the three female cast members returned nightly to FEMA trailers that stood next to their damaged homes. But they performed brilliantly, as if there had been no devastation at all. "At times you think that performance— theater—is such a light, unnecessary thing but then you realize that it’s not dessert, that it’s an integral part of the meal after all.”
Since 2010, Bagneris has had a recurring role as Judge Bernard Williams on the HBO series Treme.