Last Tuesday, compliments of the Executive Leadership Foundation’s annual Women’s Leadership Forum, senior Black women corporate executives were treated to a lively discussion on success, challenge and artistry starring a panel of three generations of successful artists from the renowned Ayers-Allen family: Poet Dr. Vivian Ayers-Allen, actress/dancer/producer/director Debbie Allen and actress/singer-songwriter Condola Rashad. Moderated by Nischelle Turner, “Black Women On…Success Enhanced” was the theme of this year’s forum. And what better guests than these noted African-American veterans of the stage to impart their experiences and wisdom gained during their years spent in the entertainment industry.
“Started 11 years ago, the Women’s Leadership Forum is an initiative by the members of the foundation. They devise the theme and outline the panel. This year’s panel is a multi-generational, remarkable family. We don’t have a lot of Black artists from one lineage who have been that successful,” Brickson Diamond, ELC Chief Operating Officer told TNJ.com.
The spunky and lovely Ayers-Allen, mother of Debbie Allen and The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad, shared her unique story of opening an academy for pre-school in Texas, raising her children alone (after divorcing her husband who stifled her desire to have a career) and getting them into the Arts – all while maintaining her own career as a writer and poet. Her resolve was fearless and, based on the Allen sisters’ success, determined.
“While I helped put my husband through dental school, I had three kids and then I published a book. He couldn’t take it. After he graduated, he told me I would not need to work any longer. Well, that was the last man who was going to tell me ‘no.’ While he was home sick with arthritis, I went to a divorce lawyer,” she remarked, to much applause, of her bold decision to divorce “a handsome dentist” in 1956.
Ayers-Allen told the audience that she gained a sense of independence when she was a little girl and her mother passed away. “At the age of 9 while attending my mother’s funeral, I decided then that I would be my own person,” she shared.
And this independence and ambition clearly made an impression on her children. The matriarch of three, including son Andrew Allen, said that when Debbie was 9, she declared her plan to be a dancer when she exclaimed, “Mom, I have to be a dancer and there are no dance companies here, so what are you going to do about it?”
Two years later, the ever-determined Ayers-Allen got Debbie into a dance school in Mexico.
“I promoted self-centeredness,” she said of Debbie’s statement.
She continued, “The struggle for self-elevation and self-expression were important struggles. My kids’ first chore in the morning was to read what I wrote overnight. They were accustomed to the sound of typing throughout the house. The kids listened to so much poetry that they began to write it. They were so pure and self-interested. Don’t underestimate them [your kids]. Give them the best and the highest that you have.”
Well, Ms. Vivian’s persistence has clearly paid off. All three of her children are gifted in the arts.
Says Debbie, “Dance is my life. I know no other life. When astronauts talk about cosmic dance, I know what they’re talking about. To dance is to know what power is, what creativity is. Dancing catapulted me into everything I am doing.”
‘Everything’ includes her 1980 starring role as the no-nonsense dance teacher Lydia Grant of the movie, Fame, which later became a television series; her years spent directing episodes of hit TV show, “A Different World”; and her recent years of directing episodes of Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV show, “Scandal.” In between, she opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, a non-profit in Los Angeles.
“People ask me why I chose to do a non-profit. I say I’m not doing this to make money, but to make a difference. Money is such a fuel, but what is your purpose? Arts saved me when racial segregation was overwhelming. I’m directing Scandal now and I’m very good at what I do. When one of my young dancers stops me in the hallway to show me a dance move he or she has perfected, that’s what counts. One of my dancers is now on Broadway. Another one is choreographing and teaching dance in the Middle East,” she explains.
Also on the panel was Condola Rashad, daughter of Phylicia Rashad, who talked about the state of Black women in entertainment.
“There are a lot of talented Black women out there, but there are a lot of forces against us. The trick now is that it’s not politically correct to be out and out racist. They’re not able to say it outright, but there are underlying feelings and things that happen. Young Black artists are up against people who want us to feel a certain way about ourselves. But I was raised to believe that I can create and do anything,” she says.
27-year old Rashad, who was nominated for a Tony award for her role in Stick Fly and won a Theater World Award for her outstanding performance in Ruined, says what gets her through is this quote: ‘Don’t get angry. Get educated.’ “My grandmother has always said that education is the source of everything,” she shared.
Like her niece, Allen said she could relate to what Black women go through in Hollywood. She told the story of the time she directed a production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and a New York Times writer criticized it because there was a Black cast. “He wrote a letter to Williams’ estate asking why Debbie Allen was allowed to “niggerize” a classic. I thought to myself…we studied these people in school. Why shouldn’t we play these roles?”
At the end of the discussion when Ayers-Allen was presented with a birthday cake, she said upon blowing out the candles, “My wish is that every woman in this room will get to do exactly what she wants to do in life.” She continued, “The kind of beauty I want most in my life is what comes from within: strength, courage and dignity.”
* Click here to view photos from the "Black Women On...Success Enhanced" event.