When the AIDS Healthcare Foundation approached artistic legend Debbie Allen to produce their annual event for World AIDS Day, Allen heeded the call.
Amidst executive producing, directing, and acting on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, her upcoming turn on television’s S.W.A.T., running her not-for-profit Debbie Allen Dance Academy (founded in 2001)—and that’s just today—Allen prioritized the commemorative evening “Keeping the Promise - 1,000,000 Lives in Care: Celebrating Icons of Dance” at Harlem's Apollo Theatre for World AIDS Day November 30.
While past takes on the annual event have emphasized music, Allen pays homage to Ulysses Dove, Michael Peters, Gene Anthony Ray, Michael Bennett, Rudolph Nuryev, and Alvin Ailey, as the dance artists lost to the disease. The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Arthur Mitchell will also be honored. The evening will feature performances by Ailey II, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the recent star of A Chorus Line at City Center Robyn Hurder.
A dancer before she is anything else, Allen has earned two Tony Award nominations, three Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, five NAACP Image Awards, a Drama Desk Award, an Astaire Award, and an Olivier Award, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She will forever be Lydia Grant from Fame. She has choreographed the Academy Awards ten times, and directed and choreographed such groundbreaking artists as Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Whitney Houston, and James Earl Jones.
Here, in an uncensored conversation, she tells behind-closed-doors stories of times with these dancers, why she considers herself a dancer first, how her dance background makes her invaluable to Grey’s Anatomy, and her best advice to every reader out there.
The unifying idea around this event, celebrating the dance artists we've lost to AIDS, seems so obvious, and yet sometimes the most obvious answers are the ones that take the most work to find. Where did the idea originate for you?
Debbie Allen: Well you know, the AIDS Health Foundation has had this event for many years, and I've been involved with them, and I helped them with their celebration here [in Los Angeles], a year ago, and it was Mariah Carey, you know, people like that.
But when they said they wanted to go to New York and do something with dance, I said, "Well, we need to do the icons of dance." Certainly speaking to me was a no-brainer to connect the dots in New York and in dance with the Apollo Theatre. I just started calling all the people that I know because I've known all the people that we're celebrating, and so many that we can't—we just don't have time to do all the people that we need to do, but I’ve had a personal relationship, in one way or another, with all the people that we're honoring now. We did the homework to track down who we needed to, to get approval and the rights, and to get, you know, Alfred Dove involved, Ulysses Dove's brother, and called Robert Battle [for Ailey]...Michael Peters was a dear, dear friend of mine, and we performed together many times, worked together many times, and Michael Jackson certainly was someone that was a very, very close friend. So when we're celebrating Michael Peters [who choreographed Thriller], it's hard not to touch Michael Jackson because that was such a big, big, big deal.
Knowing you had these personal relationships, what do you want people to remember about them?
It’s so much bigger than just even one of them. It's just to remind people of the genius that we have lost to HIV and AIDS, and that this is still a disease that is taking lives every day, and that people need to remember that we have to continue to educate, fight, and help people get through this. There are medications and treatments that can help people. We didn't have that. We didn't have that when we lost Michael Peters, we didn't have it.
I remember the day when he made us know that he was suffering with this, he didn't know how to say it. We were having a rehearsal at my house, and he just came over. Actually, we were rehearsing because the Rodney King riots had destroyed the libraries, and we were preparing a big show. The Shuberts were giving us a theatre in New York to do a show to help raise money to restore the libraries.
And I had all the dancers at my house rehearsing, and Michael just showed up, and he showed up in shorts, and almost no shirt, and we were able to see the lesions on his body, and that was when we knew what he was dealing with. And he was like, "Debbie, I want to go. I want to dance." You know? It was that kind of thing.
I remember the day Maggie Johnson said what happened to him, and the whole cast of A Different World was at my house. We were having a read-through at my house, because I would cook for them sometimes, so they could just stay family. And that day, I had never seen grown men weep the way they did that day.
You all were truly family. It’s heartbreaking to hear, but also incredible how you all leaned on each other—how you opened your home, too.
The whole thing of AIDS has been so devastating, and we have to remember that it's not over. A lot of people think, "Oh, it's not a thing." It's very much a thing. And now more women are dying then men. In celebrating these great, incredible artists, it will make people remember, it will make them have moments of laughter, but it will make people remember, and think, about: Where are we right now with AIDS? It will bring that attention to the forefront.
Is that where your advocacy began?
Well, it was when I started losing my boys from Fame, and it's still hard to talk about it now, because it was just really tough. [Speaking through tears]. I'll never forget: I was pregnant with my first child, and one of my boys was in the hospital dying, and they told me—no one understood AIDS—"Debbie, you can't go to the hospital, you can't go, you can't." I said, "I'm going. Shit, I'm going." There was so much unknown. When I went to the hospital, and one of my sons—I called them my sons because they were like my children—he had not wanted to see anybody, he was so ashamed, I don't know why. But I went to the hospital, and when I got there, it was the first day in a month that he actually got out of the bed, and we took a walk, and then he died not long after that. But it was just devastating, and scary. They called it gay cancer, that's what they called it. But this disease has no discrimination, and we also learned that.
I remember, I was in a play called Raisin, my first Broadway show, and my leading man, Rob Jackson, died of AIDS. We didn't know it was AIDS, and the whole company had to line up and take a shot for hepatitis, that's what they made us do.
And I remember seeing Rob in the hospital, seeing him in the hospital, and you know, I hugged and kissed him every night on stage.
It's important for us to remember this, to gain an understanding of what it was like not to know, and to commemorate that time, while also pushing for progress. In listening to you speak, does it feel like relationships between dancers are different in some way?
You know what it is? It's because we're gypsies. We rarely get a contract. We rarely get insurance, or benefits, but we are the deus ex machine of every show. We make every show great and better, and even though they don't pay us worth a shit, we dance well. And we dance wherever. Wherever we can, because we love it. We love it. And you know, this is who we are, and this is how we live, and yes, that's how we'll die, we'll be dancing, that's it.
You are an incredible multi-hyphenate, but I will always associate you first and foremost with dance. Is that how you see yourself?
Absolutely. I'm always a dancer first. In fact, when I'm directing Grey's Anatomy, they're always saying, "Oh, it's choreography again, here we go." Because it's thinking. I mean, it is choreography. It's movement. It's called motion pictures. So what is the movement in the life of the actor? That defines where you put the camera. What is the story that you're telling? How are you moving from this moment to that moment? And we're [shooting] a big motion control shot on Grey's Anatomy, next week, and everybody was trying to figure out how you do this, and this, I said, "Guys, relax, it's going to be fine, because we're going to shoot the whole thing to music." It’s the action that is important, and Krista Vernoff and Shonda Rhimes will change the music. But, I have an understanding of how to do these things; it is totally out of my experience in the dance world, and the music world, and all of that. [It] informs me in a way that other people just don't have a clue.
But you know, I'm passing it on, so I'm sharing that knowledge.
What's your advice to other women with big dreams of changing the world in this way, and making art?
You know, I'm teaching people all the time. I have The Debbie Allen Dance Academy, and I've nurtured thousands of young people, and so many of them are out there making their mark on the world. And what I've tried to share, is in the world of the arts, one of the main things I try to connect young people to is: who are you? What do you care about in this world? Why are you dancing? What are you dancing about? What do you care about? What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? That. That is the driving force, and that could be for anyone. If you're a banker, if you're, you know, a builder, what do you care about? Why are you doing it? When you're building a house, are you wanting it to be environmentally safe? Is it green? Is it gonna be something that doesn't hurt the environment, but lives very tastefully along with it?
If you go into politics, oh my god, if you go into politics, they all need a day of class, honey. To that bar, and get in fifth position, child.
You served on the President's Committee for Arts and Humanities, what do you think the arts can use, nationally, right now? What can lovers of art prioritize?
Well lovers of art need to understand that we're probably the only country in the world, this is my experience, that didn't have a cultural agency. When you go to India, to China, just name a country, they all have cultural agencies. We have the FBI, the CIA, you know, FCC, just name them. But we don't have a cultural agency. Somewhere along the line, we are missing a huge factor in the success of America, the success of innovation does not come without creativity, and so we need to have much more support, influence, and resources, just piled on to develop the minds of these young people coming up today, in the arts. Because that is creativity. You can't become Steve Jobs without being creative.
And Steve Jobs took dance class. I love that so much. We can't just do numbers, math, and literacy. We have to have cultural advocacy, and literacy. That is the genius in America that we are not paying enough attention to.
To steal a line from Fame, do you still have big dreams?
I do. I really do, because there's a lot of things I have yet to do, that I want to do, and I've worked so hard, and I've helped create a lot of projects with people, and for people, and there's some things I want to do that are my idea that I want to see happen.
Are you willing to share one?
I'll share one. I want to. Freeze Frame...Stop the Madness is a piece that I created several years ago to address gun violence, and the gulf of opportunity that exists between the inner city, and the rest of the world. It's a piece that is a very balanced portrayal about young people, parents, police, black people, Latin people, white people, it's a fair, balanced portrayal. But, at the end of the day, it begs the question: How long is this gonna happen? What are we going to do about it? It’s all done, it's a music- and dance-driven piece.
When I created this, I wasn't thinking, "Alright, it's a Broadway musical." I'm thinking of it being a piece that really is for the people. That could really energize, and invigorate, a whole community. I did this piece to a standing room only crowd at the Kennedy Center, on the eve of Donald Trump's election. And it also evoked, and warranted, a panel discussion, and a lot of people were invited, and then disinvited to come, because people got nervous. Got nervous if we had somebody from the NRA, and somebody from the Dallas Police Department, who had just suffered that big loss, when a gunman took out all those policemen. Whoopi Goldberg was the moderator. It was an incredible conversation.
To bring it back to World AIDS Day—in remembering these artists, and thinking about their impact, what do you hope people see in you as an artist, and your impact?
You know, I don't think about much about legacy. That's not what drives me. I'm just thinking about what I'm doing, that somehow uplifts, inspires, and brings some kind of joy and understanding into this world.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.