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Debbie Allen on her upbringing with sister Phylicia Rashad and what their mother taught them

Debbie Allen on her upbringing with sister Phylicia Rashad and what their mother taught them
Phylicia Rashad, left, and Debbie Allen with their mother, Vivian Ayers, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. (Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts honored siblings and entertainers Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad this month with “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a lavish party and three-part tribute in Beverly Hills that featured testimonials, thanks and performances from fellow entertainment industry legends.

The lineup included Gladys Knight, Halle Berry, Alfre Woodard, Shonda Rhimes, Jennifer Holliday, Common, Maurice Hines, Arturo Sandoval, Raven-Symoné and Nigel Lythgoe. Rashad’s longtime costar Bill Cosby, who was recently convicted on charges of aggravated indecent assault, was only briefly acknowledged in clips from “The Cosby Show.”

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In onstage comments, television producer Norman Lear addressed the elephant in the room by recalling that Rashad’s Clair Huxtable on NBC’s “The Cosby Show” was a groundbreaking role in the 1980s and that her character “will continue to earn the attention and respect of the American audience.” Rashad declined interview requests.

A younger TV audience might recognize Rashad as Diana DuBois on Fox’s “Empire,” while historians note that she is the first African American woman to win a best actress Tony Award (for a 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun”).

In 1983 Allen became the first African American woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress in a television comedy or musical (for “Fame”). Allen also was a producer of the 1997 film “Amistad” and plays Dr. Catherine Avery on “Grey’s Anatomy,” for which she also has served as an executive producer and director.

Gladys Knight performs during a tribute to sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
Gladys Knight performs during a tribute to sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. (Alex J. Berliner / ABImages)

In many families, any story of overachieving sisters might feature fierce competition, but Allen said she and Rashad were, and had to be, supportive of each other.

“We grew up with not a lot of money. We grew up with racial segregation. We grew up not being able to go to ballet class or downtown to a restaurant or to a movie,” said Allen, who opened the L.A.-based Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2001. “And so my mother, Vivian Ayers, always made us believe that we were part of a universe that welcomed us and wanted our creativity and was waiting for us to do something good. And so we’ve been doing that forever.”

Part of Allen’s ongoing support of arts education includes Dance Sundays With Debbie Allen & Friends, a continuing series of free monthly dance workshops at the Wallis. To further its outreach, the Wallis recently announced the Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad Fund for Diversity and Inclusion.

“An anonymous donor has established the fund for inclusivity and accessibility at GRoW at the Wallis. GRoW at the Wallis is the umbrella name for everything we do in education and outreach,” said Managing Director Rachel Fine. “It’s an awesome reflection of what they are and everything they do in their personal lives outside of entertainment.”

Honorary co-chairs for the tribute were Rhimes, no-show Denzel Washington and Lee Daniels, who said in his videotaped remarks, “They are part of the reason I’m in the business.”

The sisters’ vast body of work as performers, directors, producers and mothers is testament to their past contributions and their continuing work on and off the stage. To illustrate the honors and awards they’ve accumulated, a segment featured swift-moving actors crowding the stage, each bearing a placard naming an award. They ran out of actors and space.

Though Allen is 68 and Rashad will soon turn 70, the siblings continue to produce, direct and teach as well as have leading roles, such as Rashad in the Tarell Alvin McCraney play “Head of Passes,” which was staged at the Mark Taper Forum last fall. Addressing the audience at the tribute’s end, Allen said, “This tale of two sisters, it’s still in the making. We know there’s a lot of work yet to be done.”

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