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The astonishing ubiquity of Debbie Allen

From “Fame” to “Grey’s Anatomy,” the Kennedy Center honoree’s presence in pop culture is inescapable

Debbie Allen: dancer, actress, choreographer, director, producer, Texas native, booster of others' careers and now a Kennedy Center honoree. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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In the age of social distancing, no celebrity profile can begin with the subject wolfishly striding into a hotel bar or daintily picking at a breakfast. But Debbie Allen, the 71-year-old dancer, actress, choreographer, director and producer, knows how to make a commanding entrance even on Zoom: When the screen dings on, there’s Allen, glasses on, dressed in a cozy pink robe and resplendently propped up on some pillows in a luxurious-looking bed.

It takes only a moment for it to become clear, though, that Allen is in bed late on a Friday morning not in the lounging, idling way, but in the way of Edith Wharton, who felt that the physical freedom of pajamas facilitated creative freedom, or Truman Capote, who professed to work from coffee o’clock to martini o’clock lying down — people whose ambitions were so sprawling that the line between their working hours and resting hours blurred into oblivion. Allen, teleconferencing from a rented house in Atlanta, is at the moment taking an hour’s break from editing an episode she directed of “Grey’s Anatomy,” a show she has appeared on since 2011 and executive-produced since 2015. (She pats the laptop next to her as she explains.) But she’s mainly in town to direct Samuel L. Jackson in a new Apple TV adaptation of Walter Mosley’s novel “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.”

“Yesterday before I left the office, I was told we lost a location. So I have to go and recalibrate everything I was going to do,” explains Allen, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. “But that’s part of it. You know? It keeps you on your toes.” Later today, she’ll go to Tyler Perry Studios, the 330-acre Atlanta compound to watch auditions for “A Jazzman’s Blues,” a movie two decades in the works that Perry, the director, asked Allen to choreograph.

This is Debbie Allen at a glance. Her nearly half-century career is an eclectic mix of groundbreaking achievements. It is almost as eclectic as the list of people she has taught, inspired and given opportunities along the way.

Allen’s sister — born Phylicia Ayers-Allen but later well-known as the actress Phylicia Rashad — knew early on that her little tagalong sibling would grow up to be a dancer. Allen was “always taking my socks and bobby pins, following me around everywhere I went,” Rashad, 72, remembers. But even as a little girl, Allen longed for the kind of training that would put her on a path toward professional dancing.

Of course, in Houston in the 1950s, pursuing that dream as a young Black girl required extra persistence. At the best dance schools, Allen says, “you didn’t even get in the door.”

Two women were instrumental in getting Allen the training she so desperately wanted. One was Patsy Swayze, a choreographer and dance instructor (and the mother of actor Patrick Swayze). Allen used to walk by her dance school often, wishing she were allowed inside, “and she saw me many times. One day, she said” — Allen adopts a twangy Southern drawl — “‘Little girl, why are you out there?’ I said ‘I’m sorry.’ She said, ‘Can you dance?’ And I said ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘Well, bring your shoes tomorrow, and don’t be late.’”

The other was Allen and Rashad’s mother, the poet Vivian Ayers-Allen. When Allen was 9, Ayers-Allen, who had once studied Mayan culture, took her daughters to live in Mexico, in Mexico City and a village near Tenancingo, for nine months. “Mom was tired of the segregation and the racism,” Allen says, “so she decided to take us out of here and show us what she had been talking about all along.” There, Allen and her sister could sit and order hamburgers with their mother at a lunch counter. Allen could go to dance class, “and they were happy about it. They thought I was talented,” she says. It opened Allen’s eyes to possibilities she hadn’t imagined.

Soon, a professional ballet company invited Allen to train with it. “There were no other children. But Debbie was there, holding her own,” Rashad remembers.

“As I look back on that time, I see those seeds that were being planted,” Rashad adds. “In our home, there was nothing to say that ‘You cannot do this.’ My mother made it so.”

When the family returned to Texas, as Rashad tells it, Allen “took off” in the direction of a dance career. In high school, Allen performed with the corps de ballet of the Houston Grand Opera even as she continued swim team and string orchestra. “She was always very, very active,” Rashad says.

When Allen was in college at Howard University, one summer her mother sent her to the American Dance Festival in New London, Conn., “which was a transformation for me,” Allen says. “I met — in one summer — Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp and Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham’s protege. There was no turning back after that.”

Indeed, the only directions for Allen in the years following were forward and up. By 1970, she was on Broadway, with a chorus part in “Purlie.” Six years later, she made her television debut with a small role on “Good Times.” Her first major Broadway role came in 1980, as Anita in “West Side Story,” which brought her a Tony nomination. The same year she appeared as Lydia Grant in the film “Fame,” about a performing-arts high school in New York City, then reprised the role in the TV adaptation two years later. She won two Emmys as lead choreographer on the show and a Golden Globe for best actress, and in 1984, she began directing episodes.

By the time Allen landed the title role in the 1986 Broadway production of “Sweet Charity,” choreographed by Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, her castmates knew her by reputation.

Bebe Neuwirth, who played the supporting role of Charity’s friend Nickie, had seen Allen in “West Side Story” and had high expectations for her Charity. Still, she was floored by what she saw.

In all of musical theater, Neuwirth says, the role “is as hard as it gets. Aerobically, it’s as hard as it gets. Emotionally, the ups and downs, and the comedy — it has to just be a virtuoso performance.” Allen got a second Tony nomination, but what was more impressive to Neuwirth was that Allen found enough leftover reserves of energy to engage individually with each and every cast member.

“For her to play the role as beautifully as she did and to be an exemplary leader of our cast?” Neuwirth marvels. “I mean, she's got my lifelong devotion.”

If Allen was a sparkplug back then, the years since have only seen her flourish into a full-on force of nature. Allen took over as a producer and often director of the “Cosby Show” spinoff “A Different World” at the start of its second season in 1988 — hired by Bill Cosby after Rashad guest-starred and relayed to him the low morale she’d seen on set. Allen promptly transformed the show into an instant classic about life on historically Black college campuses. Throughout the 1990s, she choreographed several Academy Awards telecasts. In 2001, she founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles.

In the same way NFL coaches’ levels of influence are sometimes measured in “coaching trees,” Debbie Allen’s far-reaching legacy could be measured in the successes of other actors, dancers, choreographers and directors who have spent time under her tutelage. Allen is an inescapable presence in 21st-century entertainment. Even if her body of work isn’t familiar, chances are you know the work of people she’s supported.

In 1982, Allen hired a young, ambitious ballerina to dance on “Fame.” Seventeen years later, Marguerite Derricks became the first choreographer to win three consecutive Emmy awards. Eartha Robinson, another “Fame” dancer, went on to choreograph movies like “Sister Act 2” and “The Fighting Temptations” and later founded her own dance school in North Hollywood. Sergio Trujillo, who danced in three of the 10 Academy Awards shows Allen choreographed and became a close friend, won the 2019 Tony Award for best choreography for the musical “Ain’t Too Proud.” Kylie Jefferson, who began training at DADA at age 6, is now the star of the Netflix ballet-school drama “Tiny Pretty Things.”

Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and other series, has pointed out that Allen blazed trails for which Rhimes sometimes mistakenly gets credit. “She put people of color on television and displayed them in ways that they hadn’t been seen before. She told stories that hadn’t been told before. She gave people opportunities who hadn’t been given opportunities before,” Rhimes said in a 2019 Elle profile of Allen.

By the time she became an executive producer on “Grey’s,” a job that entailed hiring directors for each episode, she knew what kind of power she could wield — and decided half of the season’s 24 episodes would be directed by women. “This was before the #MeToo of it all. I did this on my own,” she points out. “And I met that mark. I discovered women who, now I can’t even get them anymore, they’re so popular and so talented.”

One such woman: Sydney Freeland, a film and TV director of Navajo descent. After Allen saw her 2017 Sundance Film Festival entry, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” she requested a meeting.

“We talked for about 45 minutes, and I remember leaving thinking, ‘Well, if nothing else, I got to meet Debbie Allen,’” Freeland says. A week later, she got an offer to direct an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

In preparation, Freeland observed Allen directing an episode. “I’ve done a lot of shadowing in my day, and this was the first time I’d ever done it like this,” Freeland says. For “the episode she was directing, she told me, ‘Okay, break down this episode as if you’re going to direct it.” Allen then offered suggestions: This is working. On this, you might get yourself in trouble. “I’ve never had a mentor, or anybody, sort of offer themselves to that extent,” Freeland adds.

For Freeland, whose background is in film editing, being mentored by a choreographer “just sort of blew my whole approach wide open.”

“She asked me, How does the actor move through the space? … Find their movement first, then decide where the camera goes,’” Freeland recalls. When she spoke to The Washington Post, Freeland was gearing up to direct her 20th episode of TV in the span of four years.

Allen also managed to make a director out of Ellen Pompeo, the star of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Things were tense between Pompeo and the show’s execs after her co-star Patrick Dempsey left in 2015. Pompeo, confident she could carry the series alone and frustrated that “Grey’s” consumed so much of her working life, asked for a raise and pushed back against executives’ insistence on immediately bringing in a new love interest. By 2017, Pompeo remembers, she was looking to cut back on the time she spent on set.

Other producers, Pompeo says, “might have looked at my behavior and said, ‘Oh, she's talking again,’ or ‘Oh, she wants to do this again.’” But Allen, who had been on the show for six years and an executive producer for two, saw Pompeo’s deeply held views about the show as an asset, not a liability.

“I said, ‘Come on, G. Let's go.’ She was like, ‘Really?’” Allen says. “She always has great ideas about story, and what her [character’s] action should be. I said, ‘Yeah. It’s time for you to get on your pony and ride.’” Pompeo made her directing debut in 2017, in the show’s 13th season, and returned to direct another the following year.

“I will say, she started with encouragement, and then it turned to stalking,” Pompeo remembers with a laugh. “But she recognized in me a quality that some people might mischaracterize. Women often are mischaracterized as over-opinionated or bossy, but Debbie saw my ideas as just that — as creativity, and as ideas, and as passion.”

Last month, on Allen’s wedding anniversary, Pompeo sent Allen and her husband (the former NBA player Norm Nixon) a box-shaped floral sculpture full of red roses that was taller than Allen herself.

Allen recoils from a question about her legacy. Why decide now whether she wants to be remembered as a dancer, as an actor, as a choreographer, as a director — or something else entirely? And besides, Allen still has ambitions she hasn’t even gotten around to fulfilling. “I would very much like to direct opera,” Allen says. “I’ve not done that yet.”

She may be known to take a Zoom call in bed, but actual downtime is rare. She loves to read, but the Noam Chomsky book and the Matthew McConaughey memoir she bought last year still sit unfinished. She loves a good nap, she claims. But Rashad says she has to remind her sister to get some sleep now and again.

“I would love to take a nap right now,” Allen insists late on a Wednesday, on speakerphone in her dressing room in Los Angeles after a long day shooting the “Grey’s Anatomy” season finale and taking Zoom meetings with her colleagues at DADA. (The academy is both planning a gala and opening a performing-arts middle school.)

But, as always, another “Grey’s” episode she directed needs a postproduction edit, she says. A Christmas movie script needs a rewrite. Allen has projects to finish and people to help before she rests.

The Kennedy Center Honors will air at 8 p.m. June 6 on CBS.


In an earlier version of this story, a caption stated that a photo of Debbie Allen, Linzi Hateley and Gene Anthony Ray depicted a rehearsal for “Fame.” It was actually a rehearsal for the musical “Carrie.”