Debbie Allen on Joy, Pain of Show Business

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Legendary actress, dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen is directing the new Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' play, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Allen talks about the challenge of adapting this classic American story for an African-American cast, and about the cultural challenges of show business.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For many of us, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is the iconic work about the South, about family, marriage, and hidden desire. The Tennessee Williams play became a hit movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman 50 years ago, and it's been revived for the stage several times since it first went to Broadway in 1955.

But the latest re-imagining of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" has a twist. It's being staged with an all-black cast with big-name stars like James Earl Jones, Terrance Howard, Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. And the director of this innovative production is an icon in her own right, the multi-talented performer Debbie Allen.

The show opens on Broadway tomorrow night, and Debbie Allen joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome, diva.

Ms. DEBBIE ALLEN (Director): Thank you, glad to be here.

MARTIN: This play is considered an American classic. Were you at all intimidated by the prospect of remaking it?

Ms. ALLEN: No, not at all because I mean what better venue or avenue for us than to take on something really powerful, and certainly black people have defined the culture of America for so many centuries. This is totally appropriate in its right and in its sensibility.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is so universal. This is what really is amazing. It's so universal. When I read it, it resonated to me. I mean, my daddy was called Big Daddy, you know. We had family members falling down because of alcohol and drugs. I don't think any family in America has been, you know, anesthetized from that. Everyone has been somehow affected by it.

It's about so many things. So no, I wasn't intimidated. You know, I'm from Howard University, and you know, we take it on. Scholarship and literature are always the foundation of everything that we developed in the drama department. So I immediately set on the task of picking which version were we going to invest in because he's written about four different versions, which is really amazing.

MARTIN: I didn't know that. Let me just ask you - well, let's just sort of start with kind of the basic issue, which for a lot of people this is the - not just the quintessential Southern play, but it's a quintessential play about kind of white Southern power.

I mean, if you look at the original directions for the set, it's a plantation house, and it's sort of meant to evoke the whole sense of sort of Southern grandeur and so forth. And so I'm just curious whether there was anything you had to change to make it make sense with the new cast, because of course we all know that African-Americans were present in these plantation houses, but they weren't, you know, in the main room, right?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, in 1955 they might not have been in the main room. They weren't in the Rose Bowl. But you just go forward a few years and you have, you know, black people on the Supreme Court. You have Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." You have black people of major, major accomplishment. You've had black people of major accomplishment this whole time.

You know, whenever the play was produced, it never said when it was. It just said in the South, in Mississippi, that's all - and it's summertime. That's all it really says. It's not a play that's about race. It's not about race. So that really - doesn't really affect how we portray the characters.

The changes that we had to make are things like there's a place where Maggie calls him a redneck. Well, that's not a name you call a black man in the South. And we just kind of re-envisioned it forward about 30 years or so.

MARTIN: Do you feel that this play has particular resonance to African-Americans, or is the African-American cast, does it bring things out that perhaps people otherwise might not see?

Ms. ALLEN: I think what it brings is a new audience to the theater. So for that reason it brings something that people might not see, but it is totally universal. I mean, America is right now facing so many challenges spawned by mendacity, which is the underlying theme of the play, mendacity - the lies, the liars, you know, what is the truth? People see the truth differently. When are you going to face the truth, or are you ever?

Here in America we're trying to find out. I mean that's a real big issue I think in this next presidential campaign. Americans want the truth from their leadership. They want to believe again and that's something that's been lost.

So it's so relevant to the times, and that it's black people playing the parts just adds - you see, it's hard for me to say what it adds because I didn't see it in its original inception, and even when I was hired on as the director, they gave me the movie of Elizabeth Taylor, but I went to put it on my DVD and it wouldn't play. So I said okay, God does not want me to look at this, so I can come into it fresh, and that's how I have guided this cast, with a real fresh sensibility to come in and really find the truth and the real behavior in the life of these amazing characters that Tennessee Williams created.

MARTIN: What's been the most challenging aspect of bringing this story to life for a new audience?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, the version that we have is the definitive version that he wrote, the last one that was done, in 1974, because Tennessee continued to write and rewrite this play through the years, because he didn't like the movie at all because they took out the whole relationship between Brick and Skipper, because I guess in that year, in that time, you couldn't even reference, you know, homosexuality or even those feelings between men. They couldn't even be discussed.

And the version that we have has quite a bit of powerful language and profanity even, but I have to tell you that it's how people would talk today, which is why I picked that version. But I think the greatest challenge for me has been the actual just day-to-day creativity in finding it.

MARTIN: Speaking of challenges, Phylicia Rashad stars as Big Momma, and she's known to most Americans, I think, as Claire Huxtable from "The Cosby Show." But she's also your sister.

Ms. ALLEN: Yes.

MARTIN: Is it a challenge to direct somebody you know so well?

Ms. ALLEN: No, it's actually great. I mean, directors get a lot more work and can fine-tune performances when they get to know their actors. I've spent time getting to know Anika. I spent time getting to know Terrance. Phylicia is one of the greatest actresses on the planet, and it's wonderful to, you know, be like a Rembrandt, if you will, just to take her and paint her a different way.

MARTIN: You've been a dancer, an actress, a choreographer, a director. How do you switch from all these roles, and is there one in which you feel most you?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, you know what? I have just grown up in the world of creativity. Literature and books have always been at the center of our lives as children. My mother, Vivian Ayers, raised us reading books, going to museums. So I've always had a tremendous imagination and a tremendous appetite for the challenge of creativity.

I went to Howard University, and there I studied classical literature. I was a minor in classics, translated all the great Greek writers, from Aeschylus to - just name one, all of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: And so people don't quite know my whole background, and that's fine, but that has always informed my ability as a dancer and a choreographer.

MARTIN: And of course, there's this one moment that - when people say Debbie Allen, I bet you there's just millions of people who remember this one moment. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fame")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALLEN: (As Lydia Grant) You've got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs, and right here is where you start paying in sweat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: Okay, you're cheating. That was good. Where'd you get that, Michel?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I can't reveal all my secrets.

Ms. ALLEN: You have resources, okay.

MARTIN: That's what I'm saying. We have skills down here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's you, of course, as Lydia Grant, the tough-as-nails-but-with-a-heart-of-gold dance teacher from the film "Fame," and later of course the television series. Tell the truth. How much of that is me?

Ms. ALLEN: A lot of it is me. A lot of it is me, and when we created that series with Bill Blin(ph), who was our original writer and executive producer, it was wonderful the way he was able to use me because I had so much that I brought, you know. Sometimes he would write DWD, Debbie will determine, those dance sequences. Sometimes I would just run my mouth, you know, and talk to them the way - I knew how to talk to them. You know, I knew what it was. It was who I really am, so...

MARTIN: It was great.

Ms. ALLEN: I had a great time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is star of stage and film, Debbie Allen, and we're talking about her latest project, a new version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And you've directed episodes of so many television shows: "Girlfriends," "Everybody Hates Chris," "That's So Raven"; back in the day "A Different World," one of my favorites, I have to say.

Do you think that in the time that you've been doing this, that Hollywood has gotten better at allowing characters, African-American characters, kind of the full range of personalities that one would want?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, I think Hollywood is waking up to it. I mean, it's been a slow but sure wakeup call. Every new network has launched itself on the shoulders of the black audiences: Fox, the WB, all of them. They started with totally black, you know, programming, and then they expanded, because they knew that was an audience that they could build on.

But now you're seeing - you know, one of my favorite series that I hope will be back on soon now that the strike is over, "24." You know, they've had a black president for two years on that show, which is I think quite amazing. I always loved that, and here we're heading into a presidential campaign where it is very highly possible that this will be our nominee. He's African-American more than just a black man. He's many things.

But television is, you know, trying to get to where they reflect life. Still have work to do, let's put it that way. There's still a lot of work to be done, but I love that "Everybody Hates Chris" show. I loved directing that show, and "Girlfriends" has been a real joy.

But then the part of it that becomes difficult is that I become marginalized as a director, you know. It's a sad thing to say, but when my agent calls some of the other major shows that are predominately white shows, they don't choose me to come to direct. You know, I was directing "Family Ties" when I started, "Quantum Leap" when I started, and now there's a whole 'nother thing happening.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. ALLEN: I don't know. It's hard to understand.

MARTIN: What are you saying? Are you saying that because you've been successful in directing African-American-oriented shows or those with predominately black casts, you're now the black director and people have amnesia about your other work?

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah, it's kind of like that. It's really - I mean, I would think I could get booked on any show anywhere, but it doesn't quite happen. You know, and there are some - it's not to say that there aren't African-Americans directing some of the shows, but at the point where I am in my career, my experience and my creativity, it's just kind of hard to look at that and see, well, why isn't that happening? What is that about? It's a good question.

MARTIN: That's painful.

Ms. ALLEN: It's not so painful anymore. I'm...

MARTIN: Kind of busy.

Ms. ALLEN: Well, I'm busy, but also I know I have to plow because there are so many other ones that are coming across my shoulders that will go all the way. So that's good.

MARTIN: Well, what about film? You produced "Amistad." Are the movies offering these opportunities in ways that perhaps television isn't?

Ms. ALLEN: It's hard to say that as well. I mean, I remember after I had done the first big musical movies for Disney on television - "Polly," if you remember that, many years ago. It was so big. Michael Eisner was the head of the studio at the time. Jeffrey Katzenberg was under him. And it blew them away how big the audience was. I mean, Michael Eisner believed in that. He's the one that got Disney into the musical business. It's how he grew up as a young man in New York. He understood that.

But after I did those Disney movies, and I not only came in under budget on the first one and had such a glorious product, every studio in town took meetings with me. They wanted to say, wow, Debbie Allen, let's see what happens. But I didn't get one feature film assignment, and that's been many, many years, and that was tough.

That was a very hard time for me. It was very hard. I remember one meeting; they told me I wasn't getting the job because I was a woman, and I was like, well, should I just, you know, do something with these breasts? Should I just cover them up? Honey, what can I do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: I can't change it. But things change, and this is the good news, and we are in America. And I've traveled the globe. You know, I don't know if you know this, I'm a cultural ambassador for the United States representing American dance to the whole world. So I go on major trips around the world, and it's so powerful who we are to the rest of the world. And the thing is that we can change and we grow, and the nature of the universe is change, and that's the hope that we have.

You know, I look at my daughter and look at my son, and I look at the opportunities they will have that I didn't. I look at the opportunities that I had that my mother didn't, and that's just the way of the world. So you just have to keep your hand on the plow and keep that heart in a good place and, you know, feel good about what you do. That's all you can do on a daily basis.

MARTIN: I hear you. Well, what's next for you?

Ms. ALLEN: I'm working on a musical with James Ingram called "The Bayou Legend." We've been working on this for almost a decade, and I'm looking forward to mounting that in the fall in Chicago and getting it to New York. I'm looking at taking one of my children's books, "Dancing in the Wings," and turning it into a movie.

I'm working with a very high-profile producer-writer who loves the work and loves the characters and would like to see them up on the big screen. So that could be my great opportunity there. And I have a big dance school, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, in Los Angeles, and I have started over the last seven, eight years training a whole new generation of creative young people of all cultures, backgrounds, economic, you know, upbringings, to go out here and help change the world through the arts.

So that's a big mission for me with those young people. I'm always out there with a tin cup in my hand, raising money, girl, because you can never get enough money. You can never get enough help, and young people need the arts in their lives. There's nothing like the arts that will spark creativity.

MARTIN: Well, it's too bad you're not busy at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: Oh, yeah, well, you know. It keeps you youthful. That's all I can tell you.

MARTIN: Okay. Legendary actress, dancer, choreographer Debbie Allen directs the new Broadway production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." It opens this week. Ms. Allen joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us, my diva.

Ms. ALLEN: Thank you so much. I look forward to seeing you. Come see the show. It's going to be great.

(Soundbite of song, "Fame")

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