December 9, 2009
Q & A With Entertainer Debbie Allen
Emmy Award-winning choreographer and actress Debbie Allen, also a prolific producer/director of television, film and stage productions, is bringing her latest show, “Oman ... O Man!” to the stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall this week.
Since 2001, Allen has also operated the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles, which offers professional training for young dancers and is engaged in youth-focused outreach and education initiatives.
The Journal spoke with her about her travels to the Middle Eastern country of Oman with some of her Los Angeles dancers, her role as a cultural ambassador and her conviction that dance, music and the arts can create bridges across cultures and between disparate peoples.
Jewish Journal: Your new musical, “Oman ... O Man!” was originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center [in Washington, D.C.] for its three-week Arts of the Arab World festival earlier this year. What parameters were you given for creating your show?
Debbie Allen: The festival, called ‘Arabesque,’ was a celebration of Arabic culture. I have been artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for over 15 years, and in that wonderful time, I’ve created probably eight original productions ... with the mission to inspire young people, and people in general, to participate in and support the arts.
[For this project] I was given the mission to come up with my own idea of how to find dancers from the Middle East and fuse them with dancers from the West, and see how I could create a collective conversation between those two nations of people.
JJ: The story centers on two 12-year-old boys, one Omani and one American, who meet at a military academy. What inspired you to choose that country and that premise?
DA: I focused on Oman, instead of five or 10 different countries in the Middle East, [because as] I learned about the country, there was so much that really piqued my interest…. I read the [Omani] Sultan Qaboos’ biography and I saw he had been sent away to a military academy [as a child], and I thought ... I could do that and create a fictional, international military academy, send two boys, and let them happen to find one another. That would spark a wonderful conversation about culture, geography, religion, finance, women — they could talk about everything; and that’s what they do.
JJ: As you traveled to Oman and worked with young Omani artists — 10 of whom appear in this production — what did you discover about the cultural similarities and differences between the two countries?
DA: When I went there — to see their culture and to hear their music and rhythms — it was so African, and it was so familiar to me in that way. I wasn’t expecting that: the fundamental African nature of their culture [Oman has a long history of colonization in East Africa]. What I also found interesting is all the history — like right now they are powerful because of oil; but back in antiquity, they were powerful because of frankincense, which was worth more than its weight in gold ... and it comes from a tree in Oman.
We also got into religion, which I felt would be very important. When you look at the three great religions, they all have the same beginning. And so that’s discussed in the play — and the question is asked, but not answered: If we have the same beginning, why don’t we get along? It’s a tough question. A simple question, but it has no answer.
JJ: Some of your dance students here in Los Angeles are Jewish. What effect did that have on the trip, on the content of the production and on the American and Omani dancers?
DA: It didn’t seem to be an issue, because the nature of the piece and the nature of our relationship was that we were exploring each other, not judging each other, not holding on to any preconceived notions about what religion is ‘right,’ what religion is ‘wrong,’ what is ‘good,’ what is ‘bad,’ but open to everything.
And the most telling thing is that when they had to separate — everyone from DADA left to go back to California before the Omanis did — and the Omanis all got up at 4 in the morning to take [the Californians’] bags downstairs. There were tears, there was a real bond that had formed between them, and it just speaks volumes about the power of the arts to unify, to bring people together who are different. You realize you’re praying to the same God — whether you call it Almighty, Allah, God. That was the best part of the trip, honestly, just watching them come together like that.
JJ: How much were the dancers able to communicate verbally, or did most of their communication come through dance and learning to work together?
DA: Most of the Omani students spoke English, along with Arabic, some Swahili and maybe even a little French. But most of the time, honestly, we were speaking in dance.
JJ: Do you feel that you played any diplomatic role, either while you were in Oman or since your return?
DA: Totally — I did, totally. I felt there was so much there but so much more work to be done, and I really tried to leave a footprint that would encourage them to create some kind of arts academy for the students, where they could really train and study. Because they are so hungry to do that. And they are moving in that direction.
I also felt that I opened their eyes, but it was difficult. I didn’t bring any women from there — they were very shy. I knew that they really would gain a lot if I could have stayed there and trained them, or sent someone to help train them, that it would open them up. But the Sultan has been very progressive in terms of women — for example, they’re not allowed to wear the burqa if they work for the government. And there are women working on all levels — the ambassador from Oman is a woman [Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy, the first female ambassador to the United States from an Arab country] — and other women in high places in the ministries.
JJ: What is your dream of how a program like this could develop and grow?
DA: If we could take this program and perform it in as many places as we could, and then maybe create a new one that would be about another nation or group of people, just continuing this conversation — that would be amazing, that would be so, so amazing.
When you go places and you bring the gift of whatever your creativity is, you can open a conversation, and then you can be like a bee ... pollinating flowers with your gift, spreading it around. I have this wonderful gift to share, and maybe everybody won’t understand it or get it, but I’ll just keep doing it, because I believe it’s my mission.
I think God gives everybody their own purpose in life, and I know I’m changing young people’s lives with the art of dance and theater. And “Oman ... O Man!” — it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done.
“Oman ... O Man!” opens Dec. 10 (gala performance) and will have three additional performances Dec. 11-12 at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Westwood. For gala tickets, call (310) 202-1711; for all other performances, call (310) 825-2101, or visit wix.com/debbieallen/Oman-Oman.