debbie allen talks aids and the black lgbtq+ community

December 1, 2018
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Debbie Allen choreographed my childhood. Movement and the body became places of tension, pride, and expression because of the work of Ms. Debbie Allen. She was the dance instructor on the television series Fame and she taught us where we came from as the director of the classic sitcom, A Different World. But it was Fame that catapulted Debbie Allen into my consciousness and heart. It was Fame where I learned how one lives forever: through talent, discipline, opportunity, sweat, and Debbie Allen.

Just like nobody comes to Black feminism without bell hooks or Black theatre without August Wilson, one does not come to Black movement—dance—without Ms. Debbie Allen. But upon speaking to her, it was not so much her own career she desired to focus on. Allen dances in speech too. She dances and tap dances on topics, never sitting there too long as if even her thoughts and memories are too full of life and light to not move to a rhythm. But like a good director, she knew exactly who and what she preferred to focus on: Remembering the men that choreographed pop culture.

Debbie Allen does not want us to forget that choreographer, Michael Peter, is responsible for the moves and life poured into Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Beat It” video. She does not want us to forget the cultural love affair we had with Leroy Johnson, played by Gene Anthony Ray. Allen wants to remind us that Ulysses Dove transformed imaginations through dance with how we saw the erotic and the stage. Allen does not want us to forget that the Black gay male bodies we marvel at, the bodies that hold the lungs and thoughts that breathe life into pop culture were also the the sight of cultural and political neglect and terror.

Debbie Allen spoke to AFROPUNK about the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, her feelings on LGBTQI+ positive shows like Pose, and more.

What’s your relationship with the LGBTQI+ community?

I think of it as my wonderful friends who love me and who I love […] I feel the Black gay community is something that is not isolated. You exist in so many places. You’re interviewing me, somebody else is doing my makeup and hair, someone else may be writing the screenplay I am directing, somebody else may be acting, someone else may be a student. So, there is no isolation as far as I’m concerned because for me, the LGBT community is apart of our world.

What are your early memories of the AIDS crisis?

You have to know that when AIDS first came on the scene. It was called gay cancer […] It was twelve years later we started to understand that there was something called AIDs. We didn’t quite understand what to do about it, or how it functioned, or how you can live with it, or not to be afraid of it.

What was your response?

I always use my art and what I do to address things I thin need to be touched. So, I was the head producer and director of “A Different World” and we knew we knew we needed to address this […] We brought in Whoopi Goldberg. This is actually where I discovered Jada Pinkett [Smith] because she came and auditioned for the part of the girl that was going to be HIV+. And she was so amazing, but at that time we knew there was no cure, that this girl was diagnosed with AIDS which [at the time] was being diagnosed with a death sentence. So, we decided we didn’t want to kill Jada Pinkett. But we did decide to get Tisha Campbell who played the part amazing [sic].

What was the public response?

We were the first network television [show] to address AIDS. And you would’ve thought we pulled out a gun and shot somebody in the head because people were up and arms and upset that we were doing this. And I said, I am up and arms and upset because you’re not supporting. […] It was our highest rated episode that year and advertisers pulled out. And that tells you everything.

 Also, there’s just a generational gap now because of AIDS inside of the Black gay community.

 I’m happy to be here for World’s AIDs Day and to be working with AIDS Healthcare Foundation, it’s really just to highlight this war, this global war that we’re still in.

 Yes, and thank you so much for this work. I can’t help but wonder your feelings on FX’s show Pose.

 That’s going light speed, honey, from where we were! I couldn’t even show a condom in its wrapper.