"Honey," cackled Debbie Allen to a mesmerized soul in the third row, "you would have screamed. You should have seen my first audition. I just jumped up there with some old tambourine and sang, oh, what did I sing? 'Mockingbird.' And I wore some old tiger pants of Laverne's -- remember those old tiger pants, Laverne?" (Sure she does, a million years later and sitting 10 rows back.)
"But I got my first job. You just gotta go in there with what you have."
Debbie Allen, actress, singer, dancer and Howard University alum-done-good, went back to school yesterday . In a plunging pink leotard, purple wool pants and red carnations for her birthday ("I'm 17," she lied), she told 50 fine arts students about the first time she trod on a Broadway sidewalk:
"I said, 'Honey, I'm here.'" And her auditions: "I mean, I've been in a zillion auditions I didn't get." And her lastest role in "West Side Story" at the Kennedy Center: "Oh, I hope it runs for a long, long time. God, I'm not ready to rehearse like this again." r
Listening, some of those theater students were ready to dash for the shuttle.
"I feel, oh, you don't know how strong I feel," said Michelle Morand, a junior who wore basic black, yellow stockings and five earrings split three in one lobe and two in the other. "I'm sweating. The woman is magnificient. iI feel like I can just go to New York right now and take it in my hands."
The setting was Howard's Ira Aldridge Theater, a stale sort of place in the daytime. Not yesterday. There, tantalized, sat the students remembering not even a decade ago, Debbie Allen and just one of them, just another kid in leg warmers.
"You can go as far as you can see yourself," she said.
Critics call Allen an unstoppable talent, fresh, lively, potent. She played Alex Haley's wife in "Roots: The Next Generation," replaced Charlaine Woodward in "Ain't Misbehavin" and is now cast as Anita in the stage revival of "West Side Story." She lives on the East Side of New York now, travels with a chow, wears a white fox.
Still, she appeared as touched by yesterday's Howard homecoming as her old friends were with her. She hugged her teachers, shook hands with the dean, reminisced about the boys she used to chase around the tree on Fridays.
And with a best friend from college there was talk of two turning points.
"Laverne!" she cried in a once familiar hallway. "What are they telling me?"
"I'm pregnant again," confided Laverne, who is Laverne Reed, Howard choreographer and tiger pants owner.
"You've beat me all right, girl," answered Allen. "But give me just a little more time. Just a little more time."
Inside, in the dean's office, there were autographs to sign. "Debbie Allen," she scrawled on the back of Deirdre Henry's time card, dotting the "i" with a fat circle and writing "Love Ya," as if it were a yearbook, underneath.
Outside, like pigeons on a bench, sat the fan club. Male, mostly. One offered this assessment of the hometown star:
"Big, pretty eyes. Pretty hair, really fluffy. I think she's extremely sexy."
And from Recoe Walker, a sophomore who introduces himself to reporters, directors and anyone else who looks promising: "I'm just sorry that she's married. I found that out in the middle of her talk, and I said 'What?'"