Actress, director and choreographer Debbie Allen made history at the 73rd Emmy Awards as the first Black woman to receive The Governors Award for her storied acting and directing career. The Grey’s Anatomy star was also honored for her continued commitment to inspiring marginalized youth through her various acting mentorship programs and philanthropic work.
Allen is best known for her portrayal of dance teacher Lydia Grant in the musical-drama television series Fame (1982-1987). The multi-hyphenate also served as the series principal choreographer during the show’s tenure. Allen received a number of accolades for her stellar acting on the series including a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress on a Television Series along with two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Choreography.
The creative powerhouse has since gone on to act and direct in a number of Emmy-nominated TV shows including the Black comedy series, A Different World, which Allen produced and directed for six seasons, in addition to the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, where the star takes on the role of Dr. Catherine Fox. She also serves as the five-time Emmy-nominated winning show’s executive producer.
During her emotional speech, Allen took the time to reflect on her incredible career.
“I am trembling with gratitude and grace, I’m trying not to cry and be equal to the situation because it’s been many years in the making, taking a lot of courage to be the only woman in the room most of the time, a lot of courage and creativity and faith to believe that I could keep going. And I brought a whole lot of people with me, so I want to say thank you for this glorious moment in the sun,” Allen said tearfully to the audience.
“Let this moment resonate with women across the world, across this country and across the world, from Texas to Afghanistan,” she said near the end of her speech. “Let them know. And also with young people who have no vote and who can’t even get a vaccine, they’re inheriting the world that we live that we leave them. It is time for you to claim your power, claim your voice, say your song, tell your stories, it will make us a better place. Your turn. Thank you.”
Now, at 71-years-old, Allen is busier than ever, according to Variety.
The iconic actress is gearing up for Season 18 of Grey’s Anatomy and she’s working on on a top-secret project alongside The Chi creator Lena Waithe. Allen told the outlet plain and simple:
“I’m in the kitchen cooking, is what I’m doing. I’m cooking and it’s hot in there; it’s good.”
Here are a few things you should know about Debbie Allen.
1. Her First Professional Acting Gig Was On Good Times
Allen broke out into the TV world with her debut as Diana Buchanan, the fianceé to Jimmy Walker’s J.J character on the comedy series. Allen told TV Line during an interview that it was her first acting role in a “major nighttime show.”
“I had done Captain Kangaroo before that, but that was the first real, prime time show that I did,” Allen recalled to the outlet. “It was a big deal all the way around. I was there visiting Ralph Carter, who had played my young brother Travis in Raisin, a musical version of Raisin in the Sun, and the casting woman saw me waiting. She said, “Oh, who are you?,” and I told her I was Debbie Allen. She said, “Can you act?” I said, “Yes, ma’am”…and then it all happened.”
2. Allen Modeled A Different World After Howard University
Allen, who earned her degree at Howard University, said she modeled the show’s concept after her experience attending the historically Black institution. The star joined the cast of the show after Season 2 and eventually jumped behind the camera to direct The Cosby Show spin-off.
“I had been brought in to take the show and make it culturally relevant, and that was something I knew about,” she says. “I went to Howard University, so I knew what a historically Black college ought to look like, smell like, feel like, taste like, and act like.” Eventually, the show’s Powers That Be “wanted me to play the dean, and I said, ‘You know what? There’s somebody better than me, and I brought in Jenifer Lewis, and Jenifer Lewis was amazing as the dean,” she added to TV Line.
3. She Has Choreographed For A Number Of Stars
According to PEOPLE, Allen has choreographed a number of performances for celebs like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and the late Whitney Houston among others. Last year she was appointed to represent the United States as a Cultural Ambassador of Dance. She’s also choreographed The Oscars ten times.
4. She Runs A Non-Profit Dance School
In 2000, the former Broadway actress opened up The Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) as a way to “bring dance and theater arts to marginalized students”, PEOPLE notes. The school services over 3,000 participants each year and offers a number of scholarships to prospective students. A part of Allen’s mission is to serve disenfranchised Black and Latino communities while also designing classes for seniors, cancer patients, and women and children who have experienced domestic abuse.
5. Debbie’s Students Appeared In Her 2020 Netflix Special
The Shondaland produced Netflix documentary was released in 2020 and followed Debbie Allen and her students at DADA as they prepared for their big annual-award-winning holiday version of The Nutcracker called the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.
In Allen’s retelling of the classic Christmas tale, the main character named Kara and her pal the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, travel from the South pole to a number of imaginary places where the dancers, who are predominately people of color, perform a series of stellar dance genres including jazz, tap, and flamenco.
“The ballet world could be non-inclusive,” Allen told LA Mag of her inspiration behind including a diverse cast. “It’s not the world we’re living in now. We don’t have to just be one thing. In my Nutcracker, we have an Egyptian doll and we’ve had different dancers do that role. It isn’t about a body type.”
6. Phylicia Rashad and Allen Are Sisters
Did you know Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen are sisters? Acting runs in the family. Phylicia starred in the famed Cosby Show series as the beloved Claire Huxtable from 1984 until the show’s end in 1992. During that time, Rashad earned an Emmy nomination and was even dubbed the “The Mother of the Black Community” by the NAACP in 2010. Their mother, Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers Allen, is integral to their love for the arts.
The two siblings gushed about their mother in Essence last year, citing she took them everywhere from her trips to Mexico to the study hall of Rice University where she worked as an assistant librarian.
“Take your children with you. Don’t leave them behind. Take them with you. No matter how difficult it is, take them with you because that’s how Phylicia and I have become who we are. Mama always took us with her, and we were part of her vision and her dream along the way,” Allen shared.
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