Getting to the Dance With Debbie Allen
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life is too short to spend it not doing as much as possible.
By Eugene S. Robinson
When you talk about Debbie Allen, you need to realize that hyphens will not get you anywhere close to wrapping your head around what she has accomplished. She’s an actress, choreographer, dancer, director, producer, singer-songwriter and the proud owner of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Add to that three Emmys, two Tonys, one Golden Globe and now The Carlos Watson Show and you’ve got not just a bite but a whole meal. Here are some of the best cuts from a longer conversation with OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson. Watch the full episode here.
From COVID to Trump
Carlos Watson: OK. Debbie Allen, welcome to the show.
Debbie Allen: Thank you, Carlos. How are you?
Watson: I am good. Although you and I both may be a little Zoomed out and stir-crazy. Did you go into lockdown during COVID, or what have you done?
Allen: Well, it’s been lockdown because, well, my show, Grey’s Anatomy, was the first show that shut down. And then my dance academy, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, shut down the same day. And then I immediately started doing virtual classes on Instagram to thousands and thousands of people around the world. And it’s just been, this is what it’s like to be in the middle of evolution because that’s what it is. Everything has changed. Everything.
Watson: Interesting. How profound do you think the change is going to be?
Allen: Well, I think it’s going to be profound enough that it’s going to be lasting. Meaning, I think some of the things that we have put together in the middle of COVID, out of necessity, have actually become new ways of doing things. For example, our virtual dance classes. I created what I call the data virtual dance world. We have people taking classes with my instructors from India and from London and from Italy and China, all over the world. And that is a good thing.
As much as we’ve been separated in the studio physically, we have been united globally in a way because of technology. So I think these were things that we wanted to have happen, but this is kind of like a force majeure and I think we’re going to continue with the virtual dance world.
And then, I don’t know, we haven’t started back to work on Grey’s Anatomy. The goal post keeps moving. So we’ll see when we actually go back, but it’s looking really — I feel confident about the protocols between all the doctors and all of the unions and certainly all of our own commonsense values. And we’re a medical show, so we have someone named Linda Klein, who’s our No. 1 medical expert and we trust Linda Klein. She’s a litmus test for us, along with all the other people that are working. So we feel lucky and we feel confident.
Watson: Do you think that the stories that you will tell on Grey’s Anatomy will also profoundly change as a result of what we’ve all just gone through?
Allen: Absolutely. We’re definitely going to address COVID, how could we not? And George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and the universal cry for justice — criminal justice, social justice, economic justice — we have to address all of that. We’re a show that’s contemporary; it’s about what’s happening in our lives now. It’s certainly about relationships, but the relationships, every relationship I know right now, is colored by what is happening in the world today.
When you hear the eulogy from President Barack Obama, it’s like being in class and remembering what you have to do. The eulogy he gave for John Lewis was captivating, but it was also something we needed to hear, the words from George W. Bush, even from [Bill] Clinton. This is a time where there’s so much happening. Come on, the Voting Rights Act, 1965? We’re still dealing with that really. There are a lot of issues and a lot of stories that are going to come out of all of this.
Watson: How surprised were you in 2016 when Trump won?
Allen: It wasn’t surprise, it was devastation, because I just felt like Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring … I don’t think he thought he was going to win. I thought he did it for the visibility of it all because he’s that kind of guy. I met him a long time ago and he’s a guy who’s out there and doing things and wants his face and his name out there in the world. It was definitely a surprise.
So it’s something that we have to pay attention to, because every poll said there was no way he could win. And so what happened? I think people didn’t go, they just assumed, “He can’t get there,” and he did. And we had the interference from Russia, clearly. So it was coming after eight years of Barack Obama, of the promise and the hope and the yes-we-can of it all, to come to such a halt.
It was hard because it seemed like Trump’s main mission in his presidency was undoing everything that Obama did. It seemed like that was really his mandate — Let’s undo everything he did — as opposed to really paying attention to what the people need. He undid the whole governance that he had put in place for something like COVID.
Watson: He certainly did.
Allen: He undid that. “We don’t need it.” There was a whole commission that had been created because they were anticipating something like this happening. That’s good leadership. You anticipate, you don’t just react. You go early, you think, you’re proactive. You try to think of what could happen and be ready. It’s like raising a child. You don’t just put them on a bike and let them go, you got to watch where they go. You got to see where they go and be ahead of them to catch them if they fall and get them back on their bike.
Watson: Most modern presidents have won reelection. Obama won reelection, W. did, Clinton did, Reagan did, Nixon, etc. What do you think would happen if Trump were to win reelection in November?
Allen: Everybody better pray, because, unfortunately, Donald Trump was popular from a television show. He was not really that successful as a businessman as we’ve come to find out. And he wasn’t very honest and he’s not been very truthful. How hard is it to stay with Dr. Fauci and just say what the facts are?
The facts that don’t fit with what he feels he wants to hear, he doesn’t want to share that. So I don’t know, we better run for cover because I don’t know what will happen to this country. I don’t know what is right now, the principles of democracy have been so denigrated and demoralized around the world. America’s stature around the world has been marginalized, totally marginalized. As the leaders of the free democratic world, I traveled the world with the arts and then you know how strong we are … cultural diplomacy is one of our most powerful tools. Right now, it is going to take a lot more than that to get us back on track after what’s happened. A lot.
Watson: So if I were to meet you out in the world — and you’ve been so blessed, you’ve been able to try and do so many different things — but how do you think of yourself? Who are you?
Allen: I’m Debbie Allen. I am a director, producer, a writer, composer, choreographer. And I am probably here to have an exchange about our cultural common sensibilities. And hopefully you can give me insights into your world, your culture and your food, because I like what you’re eating on your plate.
Honestly, Carlos, I’m really kind of how I was in high school. I was the most versatile in my class and I think I’m still that. I wear so many different hats and I think I wear them pretty well. So when I’m acting, I’m really happy because then I get somebody to do my hair and makeup. And I get to go in, explore someone who may be similar but different than me. The acting has helped me be a better director. And then the study I did at Harvard University has made me a better director [and] producer, in my ability to take the dramatic narrative, break it down, make it make sense, help it translate to actors and what they do onscreen.
Watson: I love it, because the other people I talk to, busy people who, as soon as COVID hit, they weren’t immediately planning classes. They weren’t immediately teaching thousands of people around the globe. And I could tell that there’s three, four other things that we haven’t even talked about, that I am clear that you are planning and walking through all at once. And that is, I guess that makes sense. If you say you’ve been that way since high school, is just who you are? And you’re the younger sister, right?
Allen: Phylicia is the oldest. I have a brother that’s younger than me. Hugh Allen, he’s a banker. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his family.
Watson: Tell me a little bit, if you would, about your parents. Did they have a big influence on you going into the arts?
Allen: Oh, tremendous influence. Especially my mother, Vivian Heirs, who actually celebrated her 97th birthday in July. She’s a poet, a writer, artist, concert pianist. She was doing all those things. And plus she was gorgeous, like Dorothy Dandridge. She can make any dress she saw the cover of a magazine. She had all of those skills. So Mama developed me and Phylicia, and even to a certain degree my baby brother, Hughie, to know how important and vital it is to go outside of yourself and find that thing that appeals to you, that art thing, what is it that you can do in the world that’s creating? Being creative has always been a big part of our lives. We were always exposed to art and to music and to literature. Even though we wanted to go to the sock hop and party and do all those things and go to the circus like any other kid, we were exposed to other things.
So we grew up thinking of ourselves as creative people, even at a young age. And my dad, Dr. Andrew Arthur Allen Sr., was the best dentist in the town, Houston, Texas. And he loved everything that we did. And he supported everything that we did. He loved coming to New York to the Broadway shows, to the openings. He even flew one time when my show was closing. It didn’t get to Broadway; I was just brokenhearted. And he called and he said, “Oh, red bird” — that was his nickname for me — “I wish I could see the show.” I said, “Daddy, I wish you were here.” And he said, “Well, come downstairs to the lobby.” So my parents have been very supportive and critical at the same time, my best critics. So I’m fortunate.
And my sister Phylicia’s been my … I have idolized her. I’ve always wanted to be like her, since I was little. That was not always very cute, because she didn’t always like it. But now, as we’ve grown up together, she’s become my best friend. We talk every day. We share each other’s secrets or challenges, successes. She’s been a great, great big sister. A great big sister.
Black Lives Mattering
Watson: What do you say and what would you say if we were having a family meeting and you had a number of white allies there. What would you say to them? Their ears are open, their hearts are open, what would you say?
Allen: I would say, “Start in your backyard. Start right in your own backyard.” If we’re friends, that’s already a step forward. There’s so many people that don’t have Black friends. It’s not their fault, it’s how they’ve grown up, it’s their community. They don’t have that. That’s not part of their DNA. I would start in your backyard. Look at your playing field, where you work, do you have any authority? Do you have any way to open up opportunity for more people? Do you have an opportunity to just stop and see something that’s not right and fix it? Will you be very forceful in this new election that’s coming up? This is one of the most pivotal elections that we’ve ever had in this country, the one coming up this November. Right now. So, I would say, “I’m glad that you are here because together is how we’re going to change this. It doesn’t change with just me and my people, it changes with all of us. It’s all of us.”
Watson: Then flip it to a different group. There are people who strongly support the president, who get frustrated when they hear “Black lives matter,” who say, “All lives matter.” What would you say if you were sitting in that portion of the family meeting, and it literally was a family meeting of sorts, what would you say to those folks?
Allen: I would say, “I think you need to recalibrate the lens through which you are seeing what is happening.” You have to recalibrate this lens or change the lens. You’re looking from a lens from a way long time ago apparently. Of course all lives matter. But if you can’t say Black lives matter, then you can’t address the problem right now. You’re not acknowledging the problem. You have to be able to say Black lives matter. You got to be able to write it on the streets and on the walls because that is the litmus test by which we will change everything.
It has to be specific because Black people have been so disenfranchised in this country throughout and that has to change. Inequities that go on and on and on have to stop. The inability for elected officials to admit the truth; that our schools have not been requited the way they have been in other places. Our bridges, our neighborhoods, everything. We need equality here. That’s all we’re asking for. That’s what we’re asking for. That’s what we’re demanding. Our white and brown and red brothers and sisters are joining us in this fight.
It is a fight, unfortunately. It shouldn’t have to be a fight.
I mean, what is going on that the federal government is putting federal troops against mothers who are just trying to help their families have peaceful demonstration? We’re supposed to have a peaceful demonstration. I don’t understand what is going on. I do, but I don’t. It cannot be … this is not the America we know. This is not the America that has helped the world see clearly that democracy needs to be a way of life for all people. You know, we’re not a communist country. We are not. We don’t have a dictator. We have elected people and if they don’t do right, they need to be replaced immediately.
Watson: Are you getting more involved in politics than you’ve ever been?
Allen: I’ve always been involved, I’ve always voted. I was a kid in Texas in the ’60s. Dr. Martin Luther King came to Houston, had dinner at our house. He was friends with my stepmom. We were marching in the streets to get better schools in the ’60s, to be able to go to restaurants, to be able to go the park. Everything was segregated. It’s not that long ago. It’s not that far in the past. It’s ever-present creeping up on us again.
Watson: What scares you, or what makes you feel worried or vulnerable?
Allen: What makes me scared is the gun violence in this country and the lack of civility and responsibility that our elected officials are taking. You have to have a driver’s license to drive a car. Why don’t you have one to buy all these weapons? After those children were killed at Sandy Hook, why are we still talking about this? So, they’re talking about there’s a rise in violence right now, but gun sales are off the hook right now. Off the hook. When is this going to change? It frightens me because there’s so many people out there that are responsible gun owners, but there are so many that are not. It’s scary.