Debbie Allen Makes History As the First Black Woman to Receive the Governors Award

Image: Rich Fury/Getty Images

Debbie Allen made history at the 73rd Emmys by becoming the first Black woman to receive the Governors Award. She was honored on Sunday night for her contributions to television as a writer, actress, director, producer, dancer, and choreographer.

Presented by Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompe, Michael Douglas, who all gave their rendition of her classic scene from Fame, Allen gave an emotional acceptance speech.

“I am trembling with gratitude and grace, I’m trying not to cry and be equal to the situation because it’s been many years in the making, taking a lot of courage to be the only woman in the room most of the time, a lot of courage and creativity and faith to believe that I could keep going,” Allen said. “And I have,” she said while accepting the award. “And I brought a whole lot of people with me, so I want to say thank you for this glorious moment in the sun.”

In what was easily one of the best moments of the evening, Allen didn’t have any time for the production team attempting to rush her off the stage.

“Honey, turn that clock off,” she said as the audience laughed. “I’m paying no attention to it. Turn it off. Turn it off!”

Allen concluded by speaking about the power of women and implored the next generation to use their gifts to change the world.

“Let this moment resonate with women across the world, across this country and across the world, from Texas to Afghanistan,” she said. “Let them know. And also with young people who have no vote and who can’t even get a vaccine, they’re inheriting the world that we live that we leave them. It is time for you to claim your power, claim your voice, say your song, tell your stories; it will make us a better place. Your turn. Thank you.”

Allen began her illustrious career as a dancer at the Houston Ballet Academy and continued on as a dancer throughout high school. While a student at Howard University, she attended the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut, where she met Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp. In 1970, she made her Broadway debut with a chorus part in Purlie.

In 1980, Allen landed her first major role on Broadway starring as Anita in the revival of West Side Story and she received a Tony nomination for her performance. That same year, Allen appeared in the film Fame and also starred in the TV adaptation of the movie in 1982. She would go on to earn two Emmys as lead choreographer on the TV show and a Golden Globe for best actress. By 1984, she was directing episodes of the series.

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On television, she produced and directed A Different World, Everybody Hates Chris, Stompin’ at the Savoy, Polly, That’s So Raven, Cool Women, Quantum LeapScandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Jane the Virgin, Empire, Insecure, and Grey’s Anatomy, which she also stars as Dr. Catherine Fox.

Allen choreographed the Academy Awards a record 10 times and was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2020. 

In 2000, Allen launched the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, bringing dance and theater arts to the inner-city. The school offers services to over 3,000 participants each year including grants extensive scholarships to students and in classes designed for cancer patients, seniors, and women and children who have experienced domestic abuse. 

In an interview with Variety, Allen talked about being this year’s Governors Award and her storied career. “To see that the value of your work stands tall says that I have to keep doing it,” she said. “Time is what I’m up against. I have so much to do. It’s not a moment to rest on laurels. This award means I have to keep my hands on the plow, as I always say.”

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