For over thirty years, Debbie Allen has danced her way into our hearts. From the onset of her career, Allen has been a multi-hyphenate auteur who seamlessly works in front of and behind the camera as an actress, choreographer, director and producer. From “Fame” to “A Different World” “Girlfriends” and “Grey’s Anatomy”, the Howard University alumna and Houston, Texas native is as active and vivacious as ever. Regardless of her professional success and legendary stature, Allen is passionate about training and empowering the next generation of actors and choreographers through her Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA). With creative outlets like band, art classes and dance classes continuously becoming a lesser part of a school’s curriculum, Allen’s lavish passion project, “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is not only an empowering musical family event, it’s also a way in which students receive an eye opening opportunity to be exposed to the arts. In an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, Allen shares the inspiration behind “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker”, as well as the all-star cast and celebrity donors that have helped to bring the production to fruition.
Interviewer: What differentiates “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” from other holiday productions?
Debbie Allen: We bring a fresh take on such a classic traditional holiday celebration. We’ve made it culturally vibrant and relevant to another generation of young people because it’s not just ballet, it’s hip-hop, there’s contemporary [dance], there’s skating, there’s Cirque du Soleil technique, it’s got all of those elements that get people excited.
Interviewer: How involved are you in deciding what actors would bring this production to life?
DA: I cast everyone; I wrote and choreographed the production. I decided on the characters and I just called my friends and people that I loved to use their music and have them write something for us and that wasn’t a very difficult task. Arturo Sandoval and Chau-Giang are amongst the artists that scored the production. My son Norman Nixon Jr. also wrote quite a bit of the music. It’s a labor of love, Ricky Minor has been working on everything DADA. This year is going to be very special, we have Tichina Arnold returning as the mother and Matthew Johnson as the father. And the rats…I’m back again! I said last year was going to be the last year but I’m not getting out of it so easily.
Interviewer: So do you direct yourself in “The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker”?
DA: Of Course.
Interviewer: As an actress on “Grey’s Anatomy”, with your brevity of experience how do you also take direction?
DA: I wear a couple of different hats on “Grey’s Anatomy”, I’m the executive producing director which is a position that requires me to hire the directors and indoctrinate them into the ideal of what we’re looking for on our show; to spark them and inspire them to bring the creative new ideas of things we haven’t done yet. As an actress, I take direction. One of my favorite French directors recently said, ‘Debbie, what are you doing? I don’t believe it!’ and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it again.” I like acting; it’s a whole other ball game.
Interviewer: You’ve previously shared that early on in your career there were times where you were overlooked for directing opportunities because you were a woman of color. How does someone not only walk in their purpose when they’re constantly being denied work opportunities?
DA: You have to continue to believe in yourself, know your value and continue to work on honing your skills. I was rejected by everyone but here I sit. So you have to stay in the game, you can’t just fall apart. Hopefully those challenges will make you stronger, it did for me. I grew up with the racial divide in Texas where we couldn’t go to the movie theatre because we were black, we couldn’t go to restaurants, a lot of people have gone through a lot of pain and even died so that we could vote, these things weren’t given we had to go and take it. Change was created by diverse group of people who were of every religious background and ethnicity.
Interviewer: As a producer, you spent 18 years in the pursuit of bringing the film “Amistad,” directed by Steven Spielberg, to fruition. Are there any projects that you’re equally as passionate about?
DA: I’m working on “Freeze Frame Stop The Madness” which is a piece that gives a face and a voice to our young people in the inner city and their struggles with gangs, the police, bullying, self-worth and how the arts can uplift their lives. We just played to a standing room only crowd at The Kennedy Center. Now we’re trying to raise money to take this production to at least a 10-cities tour to get started. Because it’s a work that will bring people together, help people talk to one another and help find solutions to problems that we’re facing everyday.
Interviewer: What’s something profound that someone shared with you that helped to empower you throughout your career?