With a career that has spanned nearly five decades, Debbie Allen is nominated for the NAACP Image Social Justice Impact Award. She is an unwavering social justice advocate in a career and perspective underscored by driving meaningful change on and off the screen.
Allen, 71, is a choreographer, director, and dancer, whose name is synonymous with dynamic energy, creative talent and innovation from the Fame television series to Broadway’s West Side Story to Grey’s Anatomy. The Houston native represents a powerful voice for Black women and Black actors as a whole through generations of seismic change. Through it all, she has remained steadfast in her artistry and commitment to social change.
Here are 10 images of Allen that underscore why she has withstood the test of time in Hollywood, on Broadway, and as a leader for social change.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
By age four, Deborah Kaye Allen knew she wanted to become a professional performer. Her parents, Pulitzer-winning poet Vivian Ayers, and dentist Arthur Allen, enrolled her in dance classes at the age of 5 in her native Houston. Actress Phylicia Rashad is one of her three siblings.
At 12, she auditioned for the Houston Ballet School. Although her performance was good enough for admission, according to Biography, she was denied admittance based on the color of her skin. A year later, a Russian instructor at the school who saw Allen perform secretly enrolled the aspiring dancer. By the time the admissions department discovered the situation, they were so impressed with her skills that they let Allen stay in the program.
She graduated cum laude from Howard University in 1971, with a degree in drama. After college she headed Broadway in New York City, landing several chorus roles, eventually making appearances on television, in commercials and series.
In February, 2021, Allen, who was recently diagnosed pre-diabetic, joined forces with the National Kidney Foundation and the “Are You the 33%?” national public awareness campaign to focus attention on the increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease.
Nearly 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. are at risk of chronic kidney disease (CKD), and people with high blood pressure and diabetes face greater odds of developing the condition. Black Americans are disproportionately affected by CKD, and they are more than three times as likely to suffer from kidney failure compared to white Americans, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Earl Gibson III/WireImage
Allen is a cultural icon as a result of all of her achievements, including holding four honorary doctoral degrees and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, according to the NAACP Image Award nomination page. She was appointed by President George W. Bush to represent the United States as a Cultural Ambassador of Dance. She has been artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for over 15 years, creating original works with the legendary Arturo Sandoval and James Ingram, including Pepito’s Story, Brothers of the Knight, Dreams, Alex in Wonderland, Soul Possessed, Pearl, Dancing in the Wings and Oman O Man.
THE WINNING WAY
Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
She made her mark in 1980, when she earned a starring role as Anita in a Broadway revival of West Side Story, garnering a Tony nomination. She then landed a role as a dance instructor in the 1980 movie Fame. The film spun off into a successful television series in 1982, in which Allen co-starred and won three Emmy awards for choreography. Over the years, she has also won a Golden Globe, five NAACP Image Awards, a Drama Desk, an Astaire Award (for Best Dancer), and the Olivier Award.
Committed to bringing up the next generation of talent, she opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, California, in 2001. The nonprofit school offers a comprehensive dance curriculum for students ranging in age from 4 to 18, regardless of financial status. The Academy is the inspiration for the Shonda Rhimes-produced Netflix documentary, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.
Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives
In 1979, Allen starred in Alex Haley's epic television mini-series, Roots: The Next Generations, as his first wife Nan Branch Haley. The show was the sequel to 1977’s groundbreaking Roots. Both dramas explored two centuries of Haley’s family history through slavery, the Civil War, two World Wars and into the late 20th century. It was based on the best-selling novel of the same name.
Allen and her sister, Phylicia Rashad, 73, have appeared together on the red carpet at various events over the years. They recently came together on an Instagram Live video to share stories and lessons from their relationship over the years. Their daughters, Condola Rashad and Vivian Nixon, and Allen’s two grandchildren also made brief appearances during the legendary moment. They attracted more than 454,000 views on Allen’s IG and over 130,000 views on Rashad’s IG and counting.
Brad Barket/Getty Images
Allen is married to former NBA star Norm Nixon. They have three children. Their children have etched out their own paths. Their daughter Vivian Nixon works on stage and in television. She also teaches at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, where she was trained under her mother. Norman Jr. pursued a career in music and became a composer. Like his stepmom, DeVaughn decided to take on a career as an actor, landing roles as a child actor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Bodyguard.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
In 1988, Allen moved behind the camera to direct A Different World, which became a cultural phenomenon. The Cosby Show spin-off was set at the fictitious Virginia HBCU, Hillman College, helping to boost real life Black college student enrollment due to young audiences identifyiing with the theme and characters. "Having come from Howard University. I knew what to do with the show. I had lived it and breathed it. So I knew the stories that they needed to be telling," she told Shadow And Act recently.
Watch a video clip of the interview below:
Mike Rosenthal via Getty Images
Unsurprisingly, Allen is still at it. These days has a role as as Dr. Catherine Fox on Rhimes’ popular series Grey’s Anatomy, also serving as executive producer and directing some episodes. She has also directed the Dolly Parton film, Christmas on the Square. Allen is also set to star in the upcoming film Silent Rhythm with Jesse L. Martin.
Watch the 52nd Annual NAACP Image Awards on BET on Saturday, March 27, 2021 at 8/7C
- Ayesha Curry And Steph Curry Are Pregnant With Baby No. 4Ayesha shared the news while posing on the cover of her online magazine, Sweet July.03/01/2024
- Terrence Howard Faces $903,115 Tax Bill Amidst Claims of Injustice and Slavery LegacyThe actor cited “Four hundred years of forced labor and never receiving any compensation for it,” as part of his decision to avoid paying his taxes.03/01/2024
- Nas Joins Resort World's $5 Billion Casino Expansion In QueensThe vision of Aqueduct Park is to transform the casino, in the legendary rapper's hometown, into a full-fledged establishment that mirrors the company's properties in Las Vegas.03/01/2024
- ‘A Different World’ Cast Reunites For Epic 10-City HBCU TourThe crew from the beloved sitcom is back to promote enrollment at HBCUs and raise money for scholarships.03/01/2024
- Idris Elba Reveals How He Discovered His Role On ‘The Wire’ Was EndingStringer Bell, played by the British actor, is one of the most memorable characters from the iconic show.03/01/2024
- Kanye West Calls Out Ex-Wife Kim Kardashian, Demands She Removes Their Kids From LA-Based School“It’s a fake school for celebrities that are used by ‘the system,’” said Yeezy.03/01/2024