Ever since Debbie Allen parleyed a killer look in the 1980 movie Fame into a featured role on the popular television series, this triple threat has been busting open doors in Hollywood for women of color. The Texas-born, Howard University-trained dancer/singer/actress/director/choreographer has conquered Broadway, television, and film. She’s had a recent comeback on the popular CBS drama Grey’s Anatomy, and behind the camera she’s directed hit TV shows like A Different World, Fame, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, to name a few. On Fame, of course, Allen played the hard-driving dance teacher who weekly said, “Fame costs. And right here you’ll start paying – in sweat.”
Allen’s connection to The Kennedy Center that dates back to the ’90s with her high-energy children’s dance-centric musicals, like Brothers of the Knight, a re-imagined version of the folktale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. This weekend Allen returns to The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with her newest and most ambitious project to date: FREEZE FRAME … Stop the Madness. Five years in the making, this high-energy hip-hop musical grew from the violence and disenfranchisement Allen saw on the streets of Los Angeles and heard about from students who experienced it first-hand at her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.
FREEZE FRAME is an 80-minute, intermissionless musical chock full of ripped-from-the-headlines issues: Gun violence, teen pregnancy, drug-addiction, gang warfare, police brutality, street crime, and prejudice. With an original score contributed by Rickey Minor, Lenny Wee, Thump (Allen’s son), James Ingram, Tena Clark, Wally Minko, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, and Allen herself, the show is a pastiche of contemporary sounds — rap, blues, hip hop, spoken word, gospel, and pyrotechnic ballads and church hymns. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set evokes mean streets with harsh concrete-like pillars, ramps and steps that lead nowhere, with a series of screens where Mic Gruchy’s video projections (filmed and directed by Allen) lend a cinematic aura to some of the numbers and provide plot background.
A gunshot. A blackout. The flashing lights and sounds of a police siren. These shock the audience into silence as a video of a convenience store robbery plays on the panels at the start of the show. Soon, though, the realistic grittiness of a violent crime in progress gives way to a band of dancing L.A. cops – all jazz hands, whipping pirouettes, fan kicks and body rolls, these dancers seem entirely out of character from that starkly realistic opening. Soon we meet David, aka Moon (Matthew Johnson), a well-shod and well-raised teenager, son of Bishop and Mrs. Washington, who run the largest Los Angeles megachurch. Broadway veteran (I Have a Dream, Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, and Dreamgirls) Clinton Derricks pulls out all the gospel stops as the high-strung holy man, building up his congregation’s – and the audience’s — spirits with the mighty force of powerful gospel-infused numbers. Allen, now solidly middle aged, plays Mrs. Washington with spirit and integrity in her wedge sandals.
Alas, FREEZE FRAME has too much going for it and too much going on. The loose plot orbits around father-son friction and Allen has stuffed the show full of multiple vignettes, musical numbers and monologues that provide a snapshot and running commentary on life on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A. There’s the wannabe dancer Eartha (Vivian Nixon, Allen’s daughter), who has received a scholarship to the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Center, but her drug addicted single mother is holding her back. And Rosanna, a gang-banging, gun-toting grandmother keeping a watchful eye on her deaf and mute grandson (rubbery dancer Hunter Krikac), who is, one character noted, the neighborhood Diego Rivera, with a talent for graffiti art. William Wingfield’s searing monologue as The Collector, the neighborhood hoodlum, who is exacting revenge without care because of the abuse he suffered as a child, is probably one of the most chilling moments in the show.
There are scenes in the local high school during a class on African American poets interrupted by a police investigation, and another during a basketball game. A sweet playground sequence performed by six of Allen’s young students from her dance academy, brings out some cute and endearing moments about body image and budding boy-girl friends. But, ultimately, much of Freeze Frame, for all its good intentions, is overdone and as riddled with clichés as with hard truths about race and violence in our communities around the country. And that’s hard to say, because gun violence, street gangs, and police brutality are very real, but Allen has relied on old-fashioned storytelling, overly didactic songs and monologues, and derivative choreography instead tackling these hard issues in innovative ways.
That said, painfully, the message is clear: We must find a way to stop the violence. Black lives do matter. And we must remember those whose lives have been lost too soon. The most effective moments in FREEZE FRAME come after the dancers, singers, rappers, hip hoppers and musicians have left the stage. On those video screens, 500 names scroll by of victims of police and gang violence. The audience departs as the names continue. Freddy Gray. William Chapman. Louis Becker. Oscar Romero. Jared Johnson. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking commemoration of this ongoing cycle of violence in our nation. Only in the stillness and aftermath of this high strung, hyperactive 80 minutes, does the message hit home clearly, succinctly. These names tell us to stop the madness.
Debbie Allen’s FREEZE FRAME… Stop the Madness performs through October 30, 2016 at The Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The show is sold out.
On October 29, 2016, after the 8:00 p.m. show there is a free post-performance panel called “The Power of the Arts To Be Transformative,” hosted by Whoopi Goldberg” and featuring Nicole Hockley from Sandy Hook Promise, filmmaker Lee Daniels, actress Phylicia Rashad, professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University, and Kayla Hicks, the director of African-American & Community Outreach with the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.