Debbie Allen CNN Interview 2009

Debbie Allen's Middle Eastern adventure

By Aspen Steib, CNN
November 27, 2009
Imagine being a Hollywood star complete with Tony and Emmy award nominations and multiple trips to the Oscars. Reaching that pinnacle of success in your career, but believing none of it compares to what you are doing now.

Enter Debbie Allen.

The mere mention of her name probably has the "Fame" theme stuck in your head: "Fame! I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna learn how to fly, high."

Allen was the only character to reprise her role in all three versions of the "Fame" franchise. She's also worked on reality show "So You Think You Can Dance," Mariah Carey's World Tour and choreographing the Academy Awards numerous times.

She was the first African-American woman to produce a major motion picture -- 1997's "Amistad" directed by Stephen Spielberg. She said it took her 18 years to get produced. "I'm a Capricorn, I'm patient and persistent," said Allen.

She also directed the first all black cast of Tennessee Williams famous play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on New York's Broadway and London's West End.

So what can be better than all that?

"I think the ["OMAN ... O Man!" show] might be the most important thing I've done because it speaks to young people right now," Allen said.

"OMAN ... O Man!," pronounced "Oman oh man," is a show created by Debbie Allen to dispel the myths of Middle Eastern culture told through the eyes of two 12- year-old boys -- one Omani Muslim and one American Christian who meet at a military academy. The play was commissioned by the Kennedy Center in conjunction with their Arabesque festival to celebrate Arab culture.

To choreograph the play, Allen took 12 young students from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, California, to Oman to meet with the country's Sultan Qaboos.' They also met with Omani dancers and dignitaries.

Allen said she was inspired by the story of Oman's Sultan Qaboos childhood at a military academy in the United Kingdom.

"So I thought two young boys that would meet in the military academy, would have a very honest and innocent conversation and that could be the beginning of a magical journey that could cover history, cover culture, religion, language, money, everything," said Allen.

The play even caught the attention of the White House. After seeing their inaugural sold-out performance, Michelle Obama told Allen, "Every child in America needs to see this play." That's exactly what Ms. Allen has in her plans.

"The hope that I have for this, [is] that every family and so many people in America will get to see this so we will start to open our eyes about cultures that we don't understand, or people that maybe we have preconceived notions about," said Allen.

Allen said she has already seen the effects of the play on her young dancers.

"Watching the American kids experience [Omani] culture ... by the time we separated ... they were in tears because they were leaving one another and they were now brothers and sisters," said Allen.

"They had formed a bond ... because we don't speak the same language or don't have the same culture or even understand that we pray to the same god, we do love the same music, we do love the dance, we do love the art. And that is something that can bring us together," Allen continued.

One reason Allen may be so passionate about dispelling the myths of a different culture is her own experience growing up in a segregated South Texas while trying to make it as a dancer.

"I just remember dancing from the beginning and it was a little difficult because I was in Texas and there was quite a bit of racial segregation. It took a while to get the serious training that I needed. Patsy Swayze -- Patrick Swayze's mom, taught me before anybody would take me in their class," remembered Allen.

Her persistence paid off. Debbie Allen was the first black dancer accepted into the Houston Ballet on full scholarship. She went on to graduate from the historically black college Howard University in Washington.

Allen is hoping to tour the United States and Middle East with "OMAN ... O Man!" next year.

"OMAN ... O Man!" is sponsored by the Kennedy Center, The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Oman and Target Stores. The next performance will be December 10-12 at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles where Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are expected to attend opening night.

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