In 1988, she brought Carrie to the Royal Shakespere Company in Stratford Upon Avon, UK. The musical production of Carrie was based on the Stephen King horror movie and novel of the same name. The idea was strange: turning a horror film into a musical, with dance numbers thrown in and as adventurous as it sounded, Carrie the musical did poorly in terms of ticket sales, not forgetting it received scathing reviews throughout.
Promising as the concept was, it didn't translate well to audiences and alas, it didn't make it past the West End or Broadway.
Still, she finally got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, an accomplishment and one of the ultimate and life-long goals that Debbie fulfilled as a performer.
Back to Debbie the actress, as mentioned earlier, she played bit-part roles in sitcoms, but they were nothing of a grand scale to that of (Fame's) Lydia Grant.
Her first major acting role since Fame as a regular cast member, was on the NBC sitcom, In the House alongside rapper, LL Cool J in 1995. Playing Jackie Warren, she was the antithesis of Lydia Grant, but also in some ways she mirrored her sister, Phylicia Rashad. A divorced 40 -something legal secretary with 2 kids, Austin and Tiffany, shares a house in L.A with injured (American) football quarterback, Marion Hill (LL Cool J). Jackie was funny, sarcastic but more interestingly, Debbie demonstrated that not only can she be a good sitcom actress, but as Jackie Warren, she was more level-headed and normal than the other zany roles she has played in sitcoms.
In The House may not have been the runaway success Debbie anticipated and had hoped for (She was a regular cast member, up until season 3 when her character was written out of the series), but it was a good little show under Debbie Allen and her young co-star, Jeff Wood.
The following paragraphs will address 4 of Debbie Allen's works: The Special Look album (music), Fame (TV drama) and In The House (sitcom), as well as Amistad (movie) and through this, I will analyse what Debbie says about themselves in those works, as well as of her characters and their public personae and to draw up my own conclusions on each of them. Each of these 4 works represent a different genre: music, TV drama, situation comedy and movie, which I felt best exemplifies not just the diversity of the projects themselves, but also of the roles she undertook and of her versatility, both as a performer AND entertainer.
Magazine article - In 1989, as well as hosting The Debbie Allen Special on NBC, she released her first and only major mainstream album, titled 'Special Look'. The album was the latest in the line of albums and LPs released by other TV actors and actresses, trying to make a name for themselves in popular music, and was a mixture of uptempo and mid-tempo, R'n'B songs with the odd ballad included. During the November issue of Jet Magazine that year, Debbie described being a recording artist as:
...another way of keeping in touch with what's going on in music today. And it is also a way to keep alive as a performing artist, which I am (Ebony, 1989).
By this time, as a performing artist, though she is a highly accomplished actress, dancer, choreographer, producer, director, she was open to doing something different and be diverse as a entertainer, as well as a performer and turning to pop music as her creative outlet. The album 'Special Look' didn't set the charts on fire; nonetheless, given it was her first real stab at making a contemporary Pop & R'n'B record, Debbie's first & only attempt was pretty good.
Her line: '...another way of keeping in touch with what's going on in music today' alludes to the fact that her recording material and the sound of her album reflects the 80s New Jack Swing era of R'n'B music of that era.
interview In 1988, Debbie appeared on The Wogan show for an interview in the UK to promote Carrie the musical. She mentions that in the original Fame, she only had 2 lines throughout the entire movie. Her character was supposed to be a love interest for Leeroy and a foil for Coco. But her part was edited out of the movie by director Alan Parker. When the idea of having a TV series based on the movie was brought up, the creators of the show wanted a real dance teacher to play Lydia Grant, so they casted Debbie for the role. Debbie says that Lydia is a little bit of Debbie Allen. Teacher used to hit you with a cane, was the idea behind Lydia Grant holding and using a cane to teach her dance students. She mentions teacher madame Tatiana Seminova of Ballet Roust hit her when she made a mistake. During the press article on Kids from Fame UK Tour, a journalist said to the kids that Debbie was a mean, bad person who did bad things to the young performers. She also had him thrown out of the theatre. Mentions she has 2 kids of her own, though she doesn't name them, it is presumed that she is referring to Vivian and Norm Nixon Jr, as well as 20 kids, the 20 kids being her dance students.
Debbie then teaches Terry Wogan how to dance.
They then discuss Carrie the Musical, which was based on a horror movie, based on the novel written by Stephen King. Debbie said she was attracted to the concept of making a horror-based musical and doesn't think the idea is as bad and strange as others consider it to be. She mentions that the composers of Fame (TV show) made the score for Carrie. Again she says it's a great idea and as she puts it mildly, it's 'Fame with a macabre ending'. Calls it a dance show and that it is not any more of a horror story as William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Terry Wogan questions why the production of Carrie is going to be in Stratford Upon Avon and not heading to the West End afterwards. Debbie responds by insisting that theatre is not something that is dedicated to just the West End but across the world.
In support of this point, in 2010, Debbie Allen created a new musical titled 'Twist'. Twist is inspired by the famous Charles Dickens' novel, Oliver Twist. The setting of Twist is 1920s New Orleans, Southern USA, as opposed to London, Great Britain. Like Carrie, Debbie took an original novel that later became a feature length film, and turned it into a musical by infusing elements of dance, music into the production. Twist premiered in Atlanta, Georgia before making the transition to Broadway, receiving high praise from audiences and critics alike. As opposed to premiering in Broadway, New York and heading to Los Angeles.
Unlike Carrie, Twist's concept worked and succeeded. It succeeded because the idea didn't sound outrageous and too over-the-top. It was just right. There was just enough balance between the musical elements and the dramatic scenes for it to work
Horror can work in a musical production but only if it is done well. Take The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Little Shop of Horrors - both are examples of musicals where the Horror theme works well. But Carrie was a little too overly ambitious for the audience's liking, as well as the idea was just too weird.
Performance on Fame - Debbie was asked to choreograph the dance numbers for the TV show, Fame & teach the actors the choreography. Even with her success, she recognises the importance of Fame to her career (13).
None of this would have been possible without my being on Fame. The series has been good to me, and I hope we're gonna live forever'. actually, I think the series can go on forever. It's a good show, a realistic show, with good production values. I think it's been such an international success because it deals with young people. And that's universal, whatever language is spoken' - (The Cast of Fame, Official Fame Magazine et al ,14).
I think that when people look back on Debbie Allen's career, that no matter what role or project she undertakes, she will always be synonymous with Fame. Always. And of that line, 'If you want fame, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In Sweat.'
Fame was Debbie's golden ticket to later success in the entertainment business and TV industry, - and whereas a lot of people, especially the African-American community credit Debbie Allen for her work on A Different World and of her attempts at bringing positive representations of Blacks on TV, the truth for the rest of us is, that had it not been for Fame and the success of Fame, then arguably, I don't think that the success of shows such as A Different World would be realised, never mind doing very well, and be it through Debbie Allen's own vision.
Fame put her on the Hollywood and celebrity pedestal, but also Debbie's work on that show as a director, as well as an actress, as well as her experiences as a student at a Black college, was what attracted Bill Cosby in bringing Debbie Allen on board as a director for A Different World.
Feature article on In The house - In an article with Jet Magazine in 1995, Debbie mentions that on the pilot episode, 'Getting to Know You', her character Jackie, who has been married for over 30 years, learns that her husband, Milton has left her for another-yet younger woman. She concludes, '& now I'm in the house (hence the name of the show) with an incredibly young hunk'. (Debbie Allen and LL Cool J Win Laughs In New TV Show 'In The House', 56).
This young hunk she refers to is her co-star, rapper and actor, LL Cool J, who plays Marion Hill.
On her character, Jackie and her current situation:
Jackie is trying to find her way because it's (the break-up of her marriage) so unexpected of her. It's a little scary....but if you're an adult & you have children, you have no choice but to be equal to the situation'' and not let it get the best of you (Jet Magazine, 58).
Having endured a difficult marriage and a somewhat messy divorce, Jackie is starting afresh, has moved into a new neighbourhood with her kids into a new home and landed a new job at one of the top law firms in Los Angeles, California. Here, I think what it pertains to is the fact that she wants to look forward in life and to have a successful career. Not just for herself, but she also wants the very best for her children, Tiffany and Austin. Therefore, Jackie works hard at work to provide for them, financially by having enough money to put food on the table but also emotionally, as their mother and a single parent and being there for them when they need her .
It can be a little unnerving at first, but once she settled in at her new home, over time, things got easier for herself, and her kids were happy as well.
Her situation is even more interesting; given that she is sharing her home with her male tenant, who sleeps in either the garage or the other bedroom. One would think that with a single woman living with a single man in the same house, it is suggested that the 2 people could later have a or end up in a relationship with each other.
As the show progresses, what was before a somewhat difficult and testing love/hate relationship between Jackie and Marion at first, develops into a friendship that says a lot about the characters' eventual tolerance and like for one another. Jackie coming to terms with her life- post Milton, and Marion coming to terms with his life- post his NFL days with the Oakland Raiders. With the former becoming more kinder and thoughtful than she was before and the latter's purpose in life going beyond sports and American Football.
Her work as a director - In 1997, Debbie worked on the Steven Spielberg movie, Amistad as co-producer. The film had an all-star cast of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Dijimon Hounsou and Matthew McConaughey. In Chicago Tribune, she mentioned how being a dancer, helped her prepare for Amistad (Wiltz, 1997), exclaiming that the number of rehearsals, classes and rejections she'd underwent, gave her that dogged, determined attitude to undertake this particular project.
Coming out of the world of dance, which is so physically and intellectually demanding and gruelling, the discipline of that art form really can translate into anything else (Allen, 1997).
Interestingly, back in 1984, after spending $250 for the rights to 1950s Amistad novel, Black Mutiny, Debbie tried to convince Hollywood executives and producers to turn it into a major feature film. But nobody was interested.
'I came across hard core rejection. No one saw it as commercially viable (Allen, 1997)'
They said that no one wanted to see a movie about slaves. Cinque wasn't a slave Debbie told them,- and still they said 'no'. She was so infuriated that she wanted to 'knock some people out' (Wiltz, 1997).
It's funny that the Hollywood producers showed absolutely no interest whatsoever in Amistad during 1984 and turning this project into a reality - and yet when 1997 came along, through Steven Spielberg, they decided to say yes. It's quite remarkable.
Her career as of today
As of today, Debbie is still making appearances on screen - she is the guest judge on the Fox reality dance show, 'So You Think You Can Dance?' & has a recurring role as Dr Catherine Avery in the medical drama, 'Grey's Anatomy'. All this whilst also running her own dance academy. Therefore, she is hardly one of those celebrities, who was famous and relevant during a particular decade, only to fade into obscurity later on.
& just recently, she formed her own pop group named Kids Krewe with members as young as 10 up to 12 years of age and with that, they have released a new record. It is the first time in 23 years since the release of 'Special Look' that Debbie Allen is actively involved in the music scene.
Professor of Film Studies Richard Dyer argues the star's image such as their appearance, the way they talk, how they talk, the way they come across on TV and on camera, is used to construct the character in a movie. He suggests 3 ways the star's image is constructed: selective use, perfect fit, problematic fit (Screenpedia):
Selective use - the process of revealing certain aspects of a star's image & concealing others through the use of lighting, costume, scripting, make-up, dialogue (Laughey). 2 examples of this is when Debbie wore wigs as Dr Langhourne in an episode of 'A Different World' and as a cougar in BET's 'Let's Stay Together'. This exemplifies the contrasting personalities of those characters. One was a therapist who gave advice to people with problems, in spite of the fact she was a bit loopy and well, nuts! The other was a man-hungry, wealthy woman.
Perfect fit - the star's image and character become indistinguishable; alas, the aspects of the star's/celebrity's image fits in with or bears a resemblance to the character that they play or have played. Debbie Allen runs her own dance academy in Los Angeles, California for people of all ages, and in the Fame TV series she was Lydia Grant, who was a dance instructor teaching at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts.
Problematic fit - the star and their character contradict each other. In some cases, especially when the TV series or movie has become a box office flop, as opposed to a smash hit, the problem is due to miscasting. But otherwise, the star and the character contradict each other abruptly (Yoon Park,13). I'd cite Dr Catherine Avery; she's a professional doctor, who has a thing for Dr Weber in Grey's Anatomy, even though he is a married man. Debbie, in real life, has been married to former L.A Lakers basketball player, Norm Nixon for over 30 years.
Another way of understanding stars and celebrities is thinking about how they interact with the public and their fan base. In the essay Mass Communication and Para Social Interaction, theorists Donald Horton & R. Richard Wohl discuss the idea of 'personale' and para-social interaction. Personale is when celebrities build up intimate, para-social relations with their audiences and fans. The personale (celebrity) provide a continuing relationship for their fans and that their characters remain unchanged, in a real world of otherwise distressing change. This allows people to turn to celebrities to escape from whatever problems they are having in their lives but that personale HAS to work hard to earn respect, affection (Laughey, Celebrity and Fandom).
An example of this is when Debbie Allen appears on TV, taking part in interviews, discussions about her career and work as an actress and dancer, as well as her views on the arts. She mingles with the presenters, has a laugh and jokes around, maybe showing off a dance move as well, and thus in doing so, she is inviting the viewer, audience and form relationships with people that she, herself, knows as fans and not as friends that she has worked and known them as, personally.
When she is on Facebook and Twitter, it allows for reciprocity. Additionally, it is a form of Para-social interaction; henceforth, when she posts a message or talks to us online, we can, through social media and networking, reply back by sending her messages that she will read herself.
'Para-social interactions and activities' are the connections, either face-to-face in person or online- people get from celebrities & other people (Curiosity.com). Communicating with a celebrity through Facebook and Twitter, is an example of Para-social activity.
Dyer's work on film star emphasises 3 important aspects of the meaning of stars, that are relevant to analysing the construction and deconstruction of the celebrity:
1) Audience and Institutions - Audience and Institutions are 2 different concepts that both intertwine with each other: Institution refers to 'who' has created or produced the text (TV show, movie) whilst Audience is a term meaning the people who consume that text (Audience and Institutions). But audience is not just about people watching TV shows, movies. It's the demographic of that audience, the consumers that play an important role as well.
Henceforth, are the consumers of that media product Black, White, Asian? Male or Female? Are they heterosexual or homosexual? What are their ages? What nationality are they? Stars are key to audiences and institutions because a) for audiences, they can establish their own fan base and b) for institutions, success in their careers means large turnover in profits for studios, agents, as well as gain further recognition & respect.
The celebrity is the epitome of him/her for identification and idealisation in society. Star's purpose is to make money; be it through singing, acting, presenting or whatever. The institution, i.e, TV, movie, music industry or Hollywood modifies and molds the star's image around the target audience. Hence, pop stars are constructed and their image is aimed & marketed towards teenagers, young girls (De Freitas). Institutions operate in 3 ways: production (making the film/TV show, record), distribution (studio has a licensing agreement with the distribution company & they negotiate deals to sell the lease to buyers) and exhibition (how the product reaches the audience/consumer; TV, movie theaters, online, DVDs) (Clack).
Debbie Allen's audience is mostly Black, of African-American origin and female. She is an example of a person who is a) a woman and b) Black: 2 social groups in society that are considered socially 'disadvantaged' in terms of working opportunities and educational success. She is someone, who has overcome difficulties in her life & of whom has broken down social and racial barriers to achieve fame, success and mutual respect. In return for her efforts as a celebrity and dancer, she has given back to the arts community by means of running her dance academy & giving children the same creative opportunities that she had as a young child and as a teenager. I would argue she is constructed and marketed to appeal to people of all ages, races, around the world & is constructed as living proof of 'the American Dream' of working hard to get to where you want to be in life, is always achievable. No matter what colour you are or where you are from.
Her institutions are mainly Hollywood and The Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
2) Constructions - Celebrity is not wholly determined by the culture industries (i.e Hollywood, TV networks, movie production companies) but rather it is created and constructed by the audiences reading of dominant cultural representations. As opposed to negotiated and oppositional readings in Stuart Hall's Encoding/Decoding model of media texts. Dominant reading entails accepting the proposed reading of the text. That the events that took place on screen are correct and in which s/he agrees with. A star created for audiences is not the actual person, rather they are formed with a signature or talent that makes them stand out from other celebrities, stars (De Freitas). Likewise, Michael Jackson's signature is his dancing.
3) Hegemony- Hegemony/Cultural Hegemony implies the social, cultural, ideological, economic influence, rules or ideas being exerted by the dominant group towards other social groups (Merriam-Webster, Wisegeek). Telling other groups how to behave, conduct themselves economically and politically. Take the music industry: they are the dominant group, who exert rules over artists telling them which songs to release as singles, how they should dress and look, what to say and what not to say in the press, interviews. This is considered 'hegemonic'. Debbie Allen's Hegemony is her mission statement that can be found on the Debbie Allen Dance Academy website. The mission statement reads:
The Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) is a non- profit organisation committed to expanding the reach of dance and theater arts for young people in the greater Los Angeles area, and the world, enriching, inspiring and transforming lives.
The princicples of DADA are simple and clear: Arts education empowers and defines self-esteem, discipline, creativity, and self-confidence. This refers to character education, a by- product of training in the arts. These principles will become a part of each student, whether they pursue a professional career or not. This is for LIFE (Debbie Allen Dance Academy Mission Statement)
In business or economic terms, a commodity is a 'product that can be traded or exchanged' using money or oil'. So when you buy a product or item in a store, you then pay for it at the checkout using either money, debit card, credit card or another form of payment. In return for that payment, you receive or take away the product or item of value that you have paid for.
In Marxism, the use- value of a commodity is to satisfy the human needs and wants and is conditioned by the physical properities of the commodity (10, R Young). Karl Marx 'believed the existence of a commodity is as a result of the transformation of a good's use value into exchange value'. By this, we mean when something of value- be it an item, celebrity, object has value attached to it, or exists to gain money, it uses that 'value' in order to make money, get paid. In the case of the celebrity, their value would be their talent. This value would be either their acting, singing, dancing or presenting skills. And this is used to sell records, DVDs TV shows, movie and theatre tickets, merchandise. In turn, they make and bring in money for themselves and the industry.
The celebrity is a commodity: Debbie Allen is not just a person, someone who entertains the public by acting and dancing - she is also a 'product' and as a product has economic, & I would add cultural capital, that is marketed to the public by the entertainment industry & exists to satisfy the wants and needs of that person or fan. By cultural capital, this refers to non-financial and economic assets that promote social mobility other than for economic reasons (Cultural Capital - Wikipedia). I would cite the Debbie Allen Dance Academy as another example of cultural capital. It is a non-profit organisation that is committed to expanding dance and performing arts opportunities for young people in Los Angeles and beyond. It promotes social mobility through dance, & using dance as a tool (alas, dance is a form of cultural capital) to help empower and enrich young people's lives.
Debbie Allen the commodity, expresses a form of assigning a 'value' to the person & personality - i.e the consumer, fan, audience that is coherent of capitalism and consumer culture (David Marshall, 19). The celebrity, which was a commodity, expresses that value to us and for this, we purchase their DVDs, listen to their music, watch their TV shows, movies, follow them on social media. We relate to stars we look up to and are a fan of, because they have a feature or talent that we admire or we can relate to. This in turn becomes idolisation. Some people or fans may go on to aspire to become a dancer, singer or actor later on in life (De Freitas).
To a large degree, celebrities are given space and time for which the audience can see and hear them on TV, the theatre, cinema. Yet in addition, they are also present to our eyes and ears. This in part, explains our feelings when we come face to face with a celebrity, even if we see them on screen, and not just in person. We become adulated, ecstatic and elated all at the same time. We feel a sense of connection to them, even if that connection is not as an actor, performer; and hearing and seeing them speak, when they speak, the things they say that we agree with, it enforces our feelings, views, perception of him/her and that they are just as how we expected them to be.
During a 2012 CNN interview, Debbie mentioned there are 3 keys to greatness: discipline, creativity and dedication. Discipline is rising to the challenge. confronting the task, staying focused. When you have the task, you need to undergo it; creativity, ideas, think of things, connected to things about the world and people. Dedication; dedication as in family, friends dedicated and supportive of her decisions and actions. family embraces, supports her, understands who she is and understands what she does and why she does it. acts as a motivator (Debbie Allen's 3 Keys to Greatness, CNN).
I'd concur that my definition of these 3 terms are slightly different; discipline, for me, is discipline as in being mature-yet ready to undergo training for a particular skill or craft, or learning a particular skill or craft. If you are disciplined, it means not misbehaving, but also that you learn your skills or craft in a serious manner. You are focused and eager, so your skills reflect how important you take your work seriously, but also it demonstrates how much effort you put in; creativity is expressing your creative side. Creative means being practical in dance, music, art or whichever outlet. Creativity is channeling that creativeness, practicality into work. Therefore, if you take painting as a means of creativity, artistic expression and use painting- the art form- to paint the Mona Lisa, then that is channeling or utilizing the skill of art, painting to create the Mona Lisa. Dedication means self-commitment, being passionate and driven about what you do and turning that passion into something that you will be compelled to do in the long run. This means practicing and honing your skills to become better, and perhaps end up becoming an artist, dancer, actor, TV host or musician.
In a New York Times article in 1992, she remarked that she doesn't want people to see her as someone, who produces and directs African-American movies and TV shows for African- American audiences, but as someone that has contributed so much to the entertainment industry and arts world and in sharing her ideas, experiences with the wider community and the world.
Certainly my blackness has shaped my experience, my passion, my pain. But I'm an artist, and I would like to be looked at as an artist....I'm not a Black director directing Black people. I'm a director finding a story & telling it (Dunning, 1992).
Her past experiences, struggles, hurdles she had to overcome as a Black woman attribute towards her own ideas, direction and angle of the work she undertakes as a director, producer and performer. Though one can understand why Debbie Allen doesn't want to be labelled as a Black director, who wants their work to by accepted and understood by the Black community only.
As an artist, you want your work to be seen by as many people as possible, - and by Blacks, Whites, Asians, gays, lesbians, different nationalities and ages. Everyone.
When you are from a minority community or from a social group and trying to succeed and do well in a predominately male (heterosexual) and White profession such as the arts and media, it seems that it is implied you have to work TWICE as hard, not to just get noticed. But also, to earn respect from & appreciation by the masses and to be taken seriously as an artist or creative person. Yet this is how it is and how it works. Your work doesn't just attract the attentions of people of the same ethnicity as yourself, but every single person, every fan who isn't Black, African-American.
Through the study of Debbie Allen, we have learnt a number of things about her, particularly with regards to her racial identity but also how she turned her negative experiences into positives and still ending up as a famous star and celebrity. Her audience is mostly Black, of African-American origin and female and is a prime example of someone who hails from 2 demographics that are seen as being socially disadvantaged: a) women and b) Black - yet in spite of her gender and ethnicity, Debbie has overcome barriers that had prevented her social accessibility from things, such as work and education. This is exemplified by her own experience of rejection by the Houston Ballet as a teenager to study dance.
In conclusion Debbie Allen, is not just the real person, but Debbie Allen, the actress, choreographer, dancer, director, the role model.... and her achievements are socially constructed as proof of the so-called American Dream of working hard, in order to make your dreams come true. And in return through creating the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, she is and has literately given back to the community, in addition to kids in the United States and around the world, arts-related opportunities that were made available to her that she took advantage of, as a young girl.
For that, we salute her.
Fame via NBC, 1982
Credit: Dance Australia
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