Debbie Allen's 'Freeze Frame' Addresses Gun Violence and Race Through Dance

Jordan_Riefe_Story_IMG_6769 - H 2016
Jordan Riefe

Jordan_Riefe_Story_IMG_6769 - H 2016

The Emmy Award-winning choreographer talks about "her most important work," as well as the mid-season premiere of 'Grey's Anatomy,' directed by Denzel Washington.

Each day, 297 Americans fall victim to gun violence. Eighty-nine of them die from their wounds. Seven of them are teens or younger. Political action on both sides of the aisle has had little impact, leaving many feeling helpless. Not Debbie Allen. The venerable choreographer is grappling with the issue the best way she knows how in her latest piece, Freeze Frame, a fusion of dance, music, film and theater that is set for four performances from Feb. 5-7 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

“It’s like all these souls keep speaking to me and it’s like we’ve got to do something about it,” Allen tells The Hollywood Reporter about victims of gun violence she has known and heard about over the years. “Yeah, people should be able to have guns. But let’s do it in a safe way. Let’s be reasonable and let’s give some more education and opportunity, and help people that are in need who become desperate.”

Freeze Frame begins when a crime is committed and the police chase down the wrong boy. Individual lives are examined in a multimedia melange as repercussions resound throughout a community that has seen far too many gun crimes, not unlike the South Los Angeles neighborhood where Allen’s dance academy is located. Here, on a sunny winter morning in January, the company put the finishing touches on changes from the show’s premiere at the 2013 Brisbane Festival in Australia. Since then, Allen has added stronger structural elements and additional musical numbers.

Under pale fluorescent lights, her dancers, including Matthew Johnson, who plays a young man rejected by his clergyman father, performed selections from the show. Johnson’s own father was a pastor in Atlanta, Ga., where Allen discovered the dancer when he was only 17.

“She sort of adopted me and I just started to work on almost everything she did. It was a dream come true,” Johnson recalls. “I was honored she decided to mentor me.” He is just one of many, including Dion Watson of Compton, and Will B. Wingfield from Nashville. Like Johnson, both came to the company as teenagers.

In a piece about violence against women, Allen’s daughter, Vivian Nixon, joins a seductive dance that gets the neighborhood guys’ attention. The wrong kind of attention, it turns out, as we learn in her monologue describing a brutal rape.

“She was the inspiration for starting the dance school that has turned into a diaspora for thousands of young people from all over the world,” says Allen of her daughter. Her husband, former basketball great, Norm Nixon, was on hand, along with their son, Norm Nixon, Jr., or “Thump” as he calls himself when it comes to writing some of the show’s music. He joins such composers as Arturo Sandoval and Stevie Wonder, whose song “Never in Your Sun” was remixed into “Girl Goddess.”

Finding himself in such refined company is heady stuff for the young composer, but Nixon was hardly intimidated, not after working with his mother. “You can kind of plead your case, but when the boss puts her foot down, she puts her foot down,” he said.

Allen’s been putting her foot up and down ever since she arrived in L.A. in the early 1980s to play no-nonsense choreographer Lydia Grant on the hit show Fame (having originated the role in the 1980 feature film). Her first TV appearance was on the sitcom Good Times in the 1970s, a decade that saw a blossoming of diversity with programs such as The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and What’s Happening!! Her big sister, Phylicia Rashad, continued the trend in the '80s playing Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, while Allen produced her own African-American-centric show, A Different World, in the early '90s.

Last year she became executive producer on Grey’s Anatomy, which opens the second half of its season Feb. 1 with an episode titled "The Sound of Silence," directed by Denzel Washington. “His wife knows every character. She was giving him the Cliff Notes,” laughs Allen, who remained vague on details. “There’s an inciting incident that happens to Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), and how everyone pulls together to see how we’re going to get through this. He’s such a right director for this because what he brought to this is something I love — to be in the moment. Let’s have it all thought out and planned out, but let’s get there and let’s let it happen.”

A steady voice for diversity and social progress through the years, Allen will join Maria Shriver in co-hosting a panel discussion on race and violence including former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks as part of Shriver's “Architects of Change” series on Feb. 4 at the Wallis.

“It all comes through the heart, which is the soul of art," says Allen. "Your mindset is ruled in many ways by your heart, what you care about, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry, what makes you feel." Freeze Frame is “the most important work I’ve ever done,” she says, adding, “At the end of the day, it will stand tall for human life.”