On a Sunday afternoon, Debbie Allen mills around the spacious kitchen of her Santa Monica home, holding her first grandchild, six-month-old Shiloh, in her arms. Framed posters of the Broadway shows in which she has starred line a wall, reminders that the Tony- and Emmy-winning choreographer, actress, dancer, and director is no ordinary mother but part of a groundbreaking artistic dynasty that includes her sister, actress Phylicia Rashad, and their daughters Vivian Nixon (mother of Shiloh) and Condola Rashad.
After five decades in show business, neither Debbie nor Phylicia is slowing down. They are reaping the rewards of a golden age for women and people of color in entertainment—an era they had a strong hand in creating. Debbie is entering her fifth season as executive producer of the long-running Shonda Rhimes hit Grey’s Anatomy, a show she often directs and in which she plays a recurring role.
In December, Netflix will air her new movie, Christmas on the Square. Phylicia will appear in the much anticipated maiden television series by Tony-nominated and Oscar-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, David Makes Man, on OWN, and this spring she will make her Broadway directorial debut with Blue, a drama about a well-to-do black Southern family.
The sisters remain close with their daughters. Vivian balances motherhood with roles on Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19. Condola, who holds the record for youngest actor with four Tony nominations, co-stars on the hit series Billions. The entire clan gathers as often as possible around their matriarch and inspiration, Vivian Ayers Allen, a Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet and real life “hidden figure” who worked at the Johnson Space Center as a mathematician in the 1960s.
At 96, Vivian still tutors young children at the Brainerd Institute Heritage, which carries on the mission of an elite black boarding school that closed in 1939. With her daughters Vivian bought the land on which the school stood and revived the institute. For this clan of women who refuse to rest on their laurels, there is no such thing as an impossible dream.
This story appears in the November 2019 issue of Town & Country.