President Elam Talks with Director Debbie Allen About the State of Performing Arts

Jasmine McKay Photo by Marc Campos

Occidental College President Harry J. Elam, Jr. and renowned entertainer and director Debbie Allen engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about the state of performing arts on June 26.

The event, sponsored by the California African American Museum in partnership with Center Theatre Group, was held at The Gathering Spot, a work and event space in Los Angeles focused on ideas and collaboration between African American entrepreneurs.

Elam is a noted theater scholar and director with a strong dedication to the arts that is echoed by Allen's extensive body of work.

Allen, a legendary director, choreographer, dancer and actress, is the director of Fetch Clay, Make Man, written by Occidental Assistant Professor of Theater Will Power. The play explores the unlikely friendship between boxing great Muhammad Ali and controversial Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

“Will Power wrote the play in a way that really appealed to my brain because it was moving in a way that was cinematic, almost going in and out in and out of time periods and from this person to that person seamlessly,” Allen said. “So, it was a really wonderful challenge for me as a director to see how I could create the vision of what this piece is about and what it means—and give it even more resonance that it already has.”

At different moments during the hourlong conversation, the crowd erupted with laughter and murmured in agreement with Allen’s plea for more activism and involvement within the performing arts.

“We have to get people back into the theater, in the seats,” she said. “[We have to] let them know that this is a place for them to re-energize, and to think. Really good theater will leave you thinking—entertained, but thinking. That's why it's important to have places like the Center Theatre Group, the Broad, the Wallis, Waco, Debbie Allen Dance Academy. It's important because we're able to be free to express ourselves in ways that you can't in other places.”

“I’ve always believed that art can change the world,” Elam said.

Elam guided the discussion across many topics, including Allen’s directorial process, balancing multiple projects with home life and the importance of thinking about theater holistically. He went on to ask about the state of theater in general, pointing out how the pandemic impacted people’s ability to watch theater in the traditional way. He asked Allen what it is about theater that grabs people.

“[Theater is] an experience,” Allen responded. “It’s live. It’s you. I always say the audience is a character in every play. It’s all an experience, an exchange and there's nothing like live theater.”

Fetch Clay, Make Man is running at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles from June 18 to July 16.