On View : Debbie Allen’s ‘In the House’
As Debbie Allen tells it, she was growing weary of Quincy Jones’ persistence. Record and film producer Jones, perhaps convinced that his good friend had not done it all, was urging her to return to series TV.
“I’ve known Quincy for nearly my whole life,” Allen, 45, explains. “He’d been trying to get me back in front of the camera for about four years. I told him when you get a script that makes sense, about a woman who is on a certain level, we have something to talk about.”
The script Jones got to her that finally set her return to TV in motion was “In the House,” which premiered April 2 on NBC as a midseason series (replacing the canceled “Blossom”) and which, of course, stars Allen. It’s still too early to tell whether Jones’ doggedness will pay off in the long run; the show runs through May 15, then its future hinges on NBC’s announcement next month of its fall lineup.
In the sitcom, Allen plays Jackie, a fortysomething mother of two who finds herself suddenly single when her husband, in a midlife crisis, leaves her for a younger woman. (In real life, Allen, an Emmy and Golden Globe winner as well a a Tony nominee, is an actress, dancer, singer, choreographer, director and producer and a wife and mother of two.)
The actress, whose last TV series venture was as producer and director of NBC’s “A Different World,” recently spoke to The Times on the series’ Sunset Gower Studios set.
“She’s learning about life,” Allen says of her new character. Jackie answers an ad for a house placed by “Marion,” who lives behind the house for rent and with whom the new tenant must share a kitchen. Jackie assumes Marion is a woman, but when she meets Marion he’s a man, played by L.L. Cool J.
But just because “In the House” features a rapper-turned-actor, don’t compare it to the sitcom that precedes it (Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”).
“This show is fresh and new and we’re creating it together,” Allen asserts. “The people playing the leads could be black, white, Latin, anything. This is not a black show.”
Most important was that her character “be on a certain level.” Allen explains: “She had to be at a certain point in her life, had to have a certain level of intelligence. Being a producer for the last 12 years really sensitized me to characters. She couldn’t feed into any old stereotype. She had to have a voice that speaks with a certain mind.”
Allen knows something about speaking her mind. “I learned early on to look at everything as the way it shapes your future,” she says, crediting her mother with both her and her sister Phylicia Rashad’s artistic successes.
“My mother (Vivian Ayres) was nominated for a Pulitzer for her first book of poems, back in 1952,” Allen says proudly. “That was outrageous and unheard of in those days for a black woman to achieve that,” she adds, citing examples of segregation in her native Houston community. “My mother remains the eye-in-the-storm for all of us.”
Allen’s other life experiences include residing in an unsegregated Mexico at 9, protesting the Vietnam War at Howard University and making it big on Broadway as a dancer and choreographer. (At this point, husband Norm Nixon walks into the room and interjects, “And now you’re my wife.” Allen laughs and shoos him away.)
After moving to the Big Apple, she starred in “Raisin in the Sun,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” “Purlie” and was nominated for a Tony for “Sweet Charity.”
Heralded for her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in “West Side Story,” Allen was recruited to co-star in Alan Parker’s 1980 movie “Fame.” Her role was reduced to one line.
But Allen’s on-screen presence was memorable enough for her to be offered the lead in the television series based on the movie. Originally on NBC for a season, “Fame” had a healthy run on syndication, where it ran through 1987.
“It was like graduate school for me,” Allen says of “Fame,” which took her from New York to West Los Angeles, where she now lives with Nixon and their two children, Vivien Nicole, 10, and Norman (Thump) Jr., 7.
When “Fame” directors unfamiliar with dance had difficulty directing performances, Allen assisted, eventually stepping in as director. She went on to guest-direct other episodic television. By 1988, she was not only director of “A Different World” but was the show’s producer as well.
As for stepping from behind the camera to in front of it for “In the House,” Allen says, “On certain things I think I should speak out--its a valuable opinion that comes with the package.”
But, she acknowledges, “I’m here as an actress primarily. I’m really prepared to sink in with where we’re going with who she is. Sometimes it’s hard not to say, ‘I’d like these props here.’ I’m very into that. But it’s good when actors are prepared and know what they want in a scene that enhances the director’s vision.”
Given a choice of her many career options, Allen says, without hesitation, that “I’d have to pick mother if I could have one thing. My children are my best production. They motivate me to make the world a better place.”
“In the House” airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.