MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You probably know Debbie Allen from her work in television. In fact, she uttered one of the iconic lines from '80s TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAME")
DEBBIE 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.
MARTIN: Allen played the tough but tender dance instructor Lydia Grant on the long-running show "Fame." Since then, as an actor, choreographer and producer, she stayed busy in front of the camera and behind the scenes. She directed and produced "The Cosby Show" spinoff "A Different World" about life on an historically black college campus. She's directed on Broadway and served as choreographer of the Academy Awards, and she's currently the executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy" in which she also has the recurring role of Dr. Catherine Avery.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREY'S ANATOMY")
ALLEN: (As Dr. Catherine Avery) Dr. Bailey, I believe in you. I think you have an extraordinary future ahead of you, and I wouldn't dream of coming in here and telling you how to do your job. But if you don't take some steps to replace Dr. Karev, I will.
MARTIN: Now Debbie Allen has a unique project being mounted across the country. It's a multimedia production of video, dance, music and visual art about the subject of gun violence. It's being staged this weekend at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., so we thought this was a good time to talk with her about it. It's called "Freeze Frame: Stop the Madness," and it's choreographed and directed by Allen. She joined us here in our studios in Washington, D.C., and we started by asking her what was going through her mind as she joined her cast onstage after a recent performance when she seemed genuinely distraught? And we note that the performance includes the image of a child being killed.
ALLEN: What's going through my mind is actually what just happened on the stage which is what's happening all over our country, the loss of such an innocent life, a life that everyone grows to and in an hour and a half fall in love with and then just blotted out just instantly for not any good reason, not enough good reason for that child to be gone. And so...
MARTIN: So you were actually experiencing that?
ALLEN: I am experiencing it as an actor and as a person in this world in this turbulent time that we're facing. And the end of that production gets to me every time. I wrote it. I thought of it. I lit it. I staged it, but when I'm in it, I am there. And that's what I hope for the audience is to take you there with me.
MARTIN: I read an interview with you where you said you feel like you've been thinking about this for most of your adult life, and I wondered what was it that caused you to say, you know, this is the moment where I need to put my foot down and create a work about this and add my voice to this?
ALLEN: Well, you know, as an artist, that's what we do. We respond to things that we feel that we care about that give us great sorrow, great joy. That is something that you express in the arts. I think the performing arts is one of the best ways to communicate and to bring people together. And I'm from Texas - Houston, Texas, and gun culture is big - always has been, always will be. And as a young person growing up in the divide of the - racial divide of civil rights in the '60s, I saw a lot more than any young child should see. I saw some acts of violence that no child should see.
So when I moved to LA in the height of the gang wars in Los Angeles in the '80s, I just was never desensitized to the violence and the ugliness. And I was trying to produce a movie about amistad, about, you know, us becoming who we are as a people, us being acknowledged as being human, my God, and there we are killing one another. It just didn't make any sense to me, so I had to get busy. I had to get - throw my hat in the ring and use everything - every weapon I had. My weapons are dance and music and film and art.
MARTIN: I think there's some fresh takes on things that I think might take people kind of by surprise. And one of them is a song "What Am I Supposed To Do?"
MARTIN: It's sung and danced by people in police uniform.
ALLEN: The cops.
MARTIN: The cops - saying you know what am I supposed to do if I see this? It's one of those things that just makes you sit up and...
ALLEN: And reconsider because you have to face it. I mean, there's so many really great policemen in our world that are there wearing that badge of honor and courage as they should to protect and defend. And there are some bad ones. There's some great doctors. There's some bad ones that should not be practicing. There's some wonderful teachers. There's some bad ones. There's some great priests. There's some priests that should not be anywhere around children. I mean, you could go on and on and on.
MARTIN: There's another monologue I wanted to mention. It's a monologue by a young basketball star.
MARTIN: And it's called "Am I In A Gang." And that's another thing that kind of makes you sit up and take notice because he's a star player being recruited. And he talks about being irritated that people are surprised that his SAT scores are as good as they are. He says what do you think? My mother's a teacher. But then he goes on this riff of am I in a gang? And he describes just how closed his world is, and he doesn't really answer the question but he does pose a challenge. Like, what would you do if you lived where I live? How would you survive? I was wondering if that was based on anybody in particular.
ALLEN: It is. It's based on actually a couple of people. Those stories really happened. There's another line in there where a kid says, you know, they just look at us like a herd of zebras. We all have the same stripes, but we don't. Zebras might, like, in a mass look the same, but they are very different. They act different. Their stripes are different. So, yes, Dione (ph) plays that wonderful Abe Jones (ph) who's slick, and he becomes in many ways the center of the foundation of this piece because it makes you understand how young people are marginalized by their ethnicity and their zip code. It says everything to other people from the outside, but that is totally not necessarily the truth of who they are.
MARTIN: What do you hope will happen with this piece?
ALLEN: I hope that I will open people's minds and touch their hearts and get them to have real conversation and just very slowly in little one-on-one increments start to talk to people, start to do what that is that they know they could do that could make a difference. You know, the Ebola virus happened and the whole world shut down to stop it. We have to stop this. We've got to stop this toxicity of the divisiveness of race and the idea of what's happening in our legal system. You know, who are the elected officials that won't even go and put laws on the floor that would protect our children? Who are they representing? What is that? That is something that we have got to stop and consider. I don't care about parties. I don't care.
MARTIN: You mean political parties.
ALLEN: I don't. I don't care. I want people to stand up for people, so it's got to stop all of this. Partisan politics has got to shut down.
MARTIN: Do you ever feel helpless? Do you ever feel like for all of your success, with all of your reach, with all of your connections that you can express yourself, but that you can't fix it? Does that ever bother you?
ALLEN: The nature of my personality is that I won't accept that and that I have to light a fire, a fuse, a match under people that we can do something. I'm a mother. I'm part of the strongest gang on this planet, the mommy gang. Mess with the kids - I'm sorry, you're going down. That's it. I don't care what it is. I'm part of that culture, the culture of nurturing, raising, teaching and hoping and giving. That is who I am. Hopelessness is not a factor on my math sheet. It's not there.
MARTIN: That's Debbie Allen. She's the writer, choreographer and director of "Freeze Frame: Stop The Madness." It's being mounted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this weekend. It's being performed in selected cities across the country. Debbie Allen, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ALLEN: I am so happy to see you. I love this conversation.
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