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Debbie Allen On 'Fame,' Stage And Men In Tights


Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we hear from those who've made a difference through their lives and their work. Today, we hear from a woman who is a legend in the world of dance, theater, television and film. Debbie Allen played the iconic dance teacher Lydia Grant both in the movie and in the 1980s television series "Fame."


DEBBIE ALLEN: (As Lydia Grant) You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here's where you start paying in sweat. I want to see sweat. And the better you are, the more sweat I'm going to demand. So if you never had to fight for anything in your life, put your gloves on and get ready for round one.

MARTIN: In the years since "Fame," Debbie Allen has won several Emmy Awards for her choreography, started a dance academy and directed and produced numerous projects for the screen and the stage. She's now part of the cast of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." And she's working on a new production called "Brothers of the Knight," which is what brought her to Washington, D.C. where she was nice enough to stop by our studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALLEN: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.

MARTIN: So how did it feel hearing that - I still hear that - the steel in the voice. I don't think that's changed.

ALLEN: Well, you know, she hasn't changed. My voice may have deepened a little over the years, but it's still tough love. That's the world I live in with young people and it's so needed and so necessary and it's so relevant. You know, who was it?

One of my friends was telling me - I don't know if it was Denzel - I think it was Denzel - said, you know, Debbie you have one of those all-time phrases, you know, De Niro's got one - you talking to me? You talking to me? And I have one - you want fame? It's one of those phrases that people love to hear and say because it's still very relevant to the whole idea of success, period.

MARTIN: You know, when we last spoke, it was 2008 and you were working on a production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

ALLEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Now you're back in town looking for talent for your latest production, "Brothers of the Knight." That puts a spin on the classic Brothers Grimm story "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." Why did you want to do a production that focuses on men and boys in dance? Why?

ALLEN: Because we need more men in dance. Dance is as athletic as basketball. The energy, the power, the flexibility and the creativity that it takes to play basketball is not unlike dance.

MARTIN: Do feel it's still difficult to get dads to agree to let their boys dance? That was in fact one of the storylines of "Fame" is that one of the star dancers had to hide the fact that he was a dancer. It was something that he had to kind of keep undercover. Is it still a struggle?

ALLEN: It's a pain in the behind. I'm going to tell you because I have the same problem with my husband. I want my son Norman Nixon Jr. - I don't call him that, his name is Thump - he was really talented as a dancer when he was little, tap dancing. And I had to sneak and give him lessons.

And my husband came home early one day and saw him dancing and just lost his mind. I don't know if he thought he was going to put on some tights and start, you know, flipping his hands around. I don't know what he thought. But I can tell you that that was a great part of Thump's development and when we got to a party at a big gala - and it was - oh, it was TLC, everybody was all up and through, and my son got up and danced and his daddy was so proud. I'm like, uh-uh, you don't get to get credit - no, no.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Because you didn't want him to dance.

ALLEN: You didn't want him to dance so...

MARTIN: He didn't want him to be a profession.

ALLEN: But it's...

MARTIN: You think it's rooted in homophobia, really? Honestly, at the end of the day?

ALLEN: I do, I do. And it's this thing about the tights. The tights is a big problem. At the Debbie Allen Dance Academy I don't mandate that the boys wear tights. And I have more boys in my school than any school probably in America. I must have 35. And I want to really encourage young men into the world of dance. I mean, one of my best friends who I love and miss so much - Gregory Hines - someone that I really admired. He was one of the greatest dancers of our time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speak with actress, producer, choreographer Debbie Allen. I have another clip I want to play, taking you down memory lane when you made a guest appearance as a psychologist on the show "A Different World." Here it is.


ALLEN: (Dr. Langhorne) What are you afraid of? Scared you go there and find out that he doesn't love you anymore? Honey, you can't control that. The only thing you can control is how you feel. Not how you feel, but how you deal with what you feel that is real. You've got to relax, relate and release into reality. Come on, honey, relax, relate, release. Relax, relate, release. Relaxed, relate, release. Relax, relate, release.

MARTIN: A little different therapeutic strategy there...

ALLEN: Oh, wow.

MARTIN: ...Then some people may be familiar with.

ALLEN: I forgot I had two phrases, that's another one, yep. That was great.

MARTIN: I want to talk about "A Different World" because it was one of the first programs to show a diverse college experience on television. It was set at a fictional historically black college. It had a huge following.

And some people even say that it encouraged people to go to HBCUs who weren't necessarily acquainted with them. You were one of the producers and directors who's been credited with making the show what it was. And I was wondering if, at the time, did it feel like it was going to be what it was? Did it feel special? Like making - creating a new thing?

ALLEN: It felt like that to me when I came in when Bill Cosby sent me in to take the show over and make it relevant. Phylicia and I had both gone to Howard University so we knew...

MARTIN: Your sister Phylicia Rashad.

ALLEN: Yeah. We knew what a black campus in the south would be like. And there was just no hot sauce on the table. And there was no real political through-line for those students. You know, in a country like America, if students are not active than the country's on the way to being done.

The students, the young people have got to have a voice, have got to be emotional, be expressing something. So I got there and I changed a lot of things. And you could say I put hot sauce on the table. That says everything because there was no fraternity life, there was no talk about racism, there was no talk about sexism, there was no talk about politics. And when I got there all of that changed. So...

MARTIN: So to do a program about a black campus without putting some politics in it and showing that these kids had a grounding and that just was wrong. It felt false.

ALLEN: It wasn't true. So we have all the fun - I mean, I went Howard, girl - to all those parties, please. Oh, Lord, Friday - oh.

MARTIN: Step lightly, you're giving too much away.

ALLEN: No, it was so good. It was so good. But we tripled the enrollment of historically black colleges and other colleges too because white kids were watching the show too. It wasn't just black kids. All kids were watching it. It made it cool to go to college. You know, and they might've been disappointed if it wasn't like Hillman, but we served a purpose, which was so important.

We were the first show to address AIDS in network television. I was having a table read at my house when Magic Johnson made the announcement. I'd never seen grown young men cry like that - openly just sobbing that Magic Johnson had AIDS. And I knew we had to do something about it. So we started creating a path for this story. By the time we did the show, the advertisers were pulling out. And they were threatening not to show the show. And I'm like, guys, if we save one life, it was worth it.

MARTIN: After all that, when we talked back in 2008, one of the things you talked about was the fact that even after doing this groundbreaking work, you still found yourself pigeonholed when you were trying to do other directing job. People said, oh, you do the black stuff.

Is it still that way? Do you feel now that it's kind of come full circle where - I mean, you were always doing very diverse projects. But has that changed now where an artist like yourself - do you see my point?

ALLEN: I do.

MARTIN: Do you still have to fight stereotype or you have to fight pigeonholing?

ALLEN: No. You know what I've had to fight? I've had to fight misrepresentation, you know. When you have people who love you, who really care about you, but they basically answer the phone, they're not aggressively out there. And I've been directing "Grey's Anatomy" for the last four years and of course I'm in the show. But it's just been a revelation to a lot of people that I'm really talented as a director as I am in so many other things that they know about. So I've been having...

MARTIN: But you've been directing all along.

ALLEN: I have been...

MARTIN: I mean, you've been directing for years.

ALLEN: I have been, but it hasn't been like somebody's been out there saying, hey, Debbie - you know I directed the pilot of "Fresh Prince." I directed "Quantum Leap," "Family Ties" - all these things.

MARTIN: So do you think - in fact you directed "Family Ties" before you did "A Different World." That's what was so...

ALLEN: I did and I was offered the season.

MARTIN: So like me ask you - is that a girl thing or is that an African-American thing?

ALLEN: It's both. A girl thing is a problem, especially when it comes to movies, feature films. I did movies for Disney and I got calls from every studio in town because the "Polly" movies that I did years ago - I wrapped a day early, came in 200 grand under budget. Every studio was calling me.

But I'd go into these meetings with various producers and one of them finally said to me, you know, Debbie, you've got the best take on this. It was something about basketball. I knew this better than almost anybody they could talk to. He said, you know, but you won't get this job because you're a girl. I said, wow, really? OK. And so you learn in time that whatever limitations people put on you, they don't exist for you. That's them. That's not you and you mustn't get angry. You just have to keep working and doing what you're doing. Keep your hand on the plow. That is the phrase - keep your hand on the plow.

MARTIN: Is there one thing you really want to do before you hang up your tights?

ALLEN: Honey, those tights ain't going to be never hung up. I think they're going to bury me with them on, honey. They might have holes, but they'll be on, child. I've got them on now. No.

MARTIN: OK. Is there anything you haven't done that you're dying to do?

ALLEN: Yeah. I really want to - well, I did this already, but I want to get it out there. I did "Freeze Frame." This was a musical, very relevant right now. It's really about young people in the inner city, their struggles against gun violence. And it's a musical and it's fantastic. And I really want to get it across America. So that - I want to get that going. And I'd also love to direct an opera. That's something I have not done that I would love to do.

MARTIN: I have no doubt that you will. Hopefully you'll come back and talk to us when you do.

ALLEN: Yeah, OK.

MARTIN: Debbie Allen is an Emmy Award-winning choreographer, actress, producer, director - need we go on? She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios while she was in town casting for her latest production, "Brothers of the Knight." Debbie Allen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALLEN: Oh, I'm so happy to be here.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.