Debbie Allen is a woman of great achievement. Truth be told, the three-time Emmy Award winner is an overachiever. If you look at her resume, her Wikipedia entry and bio, her everything-she’s-done list, you’d think she could take a rest on her laurels and let herself relax a little.
Not a chance.
This Thursday to Sunday, Oct. 27 to 30, Allen is bringing “Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness” to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. The show is, as you might suspect, connected to dance, but also to drama, to the way we live today, to the sorrows in our streets and the loud and deafening and devastating sound of gunfire in our cities.
As is often the case with Allen, it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort by her. She’s the writer, choreographer and director, and there’s original music by Stevie Wonder, James Ingram, Rickey Minor, Arturo Sandoval and Thump. More than 20 protégés from Allen’s dance academy and professional guest artists will appear together onstage in what’s described as explosive “break the floor” dance moves.
Naturally, Allen herself — having gained fame from “Fame” and other Broadway, film and TV work — will appear. Also on hand will be Broadway’s Clinton Derricks and Vivian Nixon, dancer Matthew Johnson, “So You Think You Can Dance” finalist William Wingfield and “I Am Compton” founder Dion Watson.
“It’s time to stand up, rise up and do something,” Allen said. “This is not just one community’s problem, it’s a problem for all of us to address, to come together.”
The multi-genre piece follows a group of young people in the cities as they face, and sometimes fall victim to, the violence, poverty and killing that surrounds them.
There’s also a high-powered (and free) post-performance panel discussion Oct. 29 on the topic of “Power of the Arts to Be Transformative.” Hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, the panel will feature Nicole Hockley from Sandy Hook Promise, filmmaker Lee Daniels, actress Phylicia Rashad (Allen’s sister), Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University and Kayla Hicks of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
“We live in a special time, the time of gun violence, of Black Lives Matter and all the issues surrounding guns and police and the atmosphere of gun violence,” said Allen, who has been artist in residence and produced plays and shows for young people at the Kennedy Center.
Allen’s decision to create a show addressing gun violence is rooted in her own past.
“I grew up in Dallas and Texas, and that history there — the assassination of JFK in Dallas, the shooter in the tower — had a considerable impact on me,” she said. “The violence and guns have always been with us. I think it’s time for people — especially in the arts — to do their part to address the issue. I was a young person then, and I remember how disturbing these events were, and how disturbing they still are.
“We’re trying to get the experience of what it is to live in such a violent environment in the cities, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, right here and now,” she said. “We’re using contemporary music, hip hop and modern tap from Savion Glover. The lyrics are the way people talk today.”
Allen’s credits — Broadway shows like the original “Ragtime,” “West Side Story” and “Purlie,” not to mention “Fame,” producing the Steven Spielberg film “Amistad” and an all-black version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with James Earl Jones — are impressive. But so is her energy, her sense of humor and her passion about “Freeze Frame.”
“Artists are a part of the world,” she said. “We can’t just not do anything. We respond to the world, and if we work together we can become a juggernaut against violence. At some point, we have to take that world back.
“It is impossible to be an artist and not do something that reflects the issues, the pain, and examine possible solutions to the senseless violence and loss of innocent lives were are experiencing every day. ‘Freeze Frame’ is a lens through which a balanced conversation can be experienced and a real call to action will be heard.”
When she talks, people tend to listen. She was appointed by President George W. Bush to represent the U.S. as a cultural ambassador of dance. She went to Howard University, from which she has a B.A. degree in classical Greek literature, speech and theater, which “makes me a local girl.” Her time at Howard “defined me,” she said. “It’s where I found my cultural identity and got a real sense of myself.”
She’s done a lot with that self, and, with “Freeze Frame,” you can see she’s still got a lot to do.