They’re two powerhouses!
While there are some luminaries whose impact on the culture is undeniable, there’s only a few who can say they belong to entire families of greatness. In the hall of legendary entertainment families there are The Wayans, The Isleys, The Jacksons, and one you may not know of, the Allens.
Phylicia Rashad was born Phylicia Ayers Allen was born June 19, 1948, in Houston, Texas, Encyclopedia Britannica reports. The second of four children born to dentist Andrew Arthur Allen and Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers Allen, all of the Allen children took interest in the arts. Her brother, Arthur Allen Jr. became a jazz musician, Rashad, became an accomplished actress, and her younger sister, Debbie Allen, born January 16, 1950, went on to become a dancer, actress, and television producer.
Both sisters earned their degrees in fine arts from Howard University and got their start on Broadway. Rashad got her start with the Negro Ensemble Company, making her first Broadway debut in 1972, appealing in several big musicals like The Wiz (1975) and Dreamgirls (1981) before transitioning to television. Her younger sister Allen wasn’t far behind her, performing chorus roles and appearances in commercials and television series before making her debut in the 1980 revival of West Side Story, Biography.com reports.
Allen’s performance earned her a Tony Award nomination and led to her big break as a dance instructor in the hit movie Fame. The film won several Oscars, igniting a dance craze around the world and leading to a successful spin-off TV show in 1982. Allen co-starred and earned three Emmy Awards for her work as a choreographer
Simultaneously, Rashad had made the transition to television in 1982, appearing in the soap opera One Life to Live. Eventually, she landed the role of attorney Clair Huxtable on the trailblazing sitcom, The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992. Her role as Mrs. Huxtable was a breath of fresh air and a first-of-its kind for Black women on television. Not only was she accomplished, she was poised, dignified, smart, funny and beautiful. The dynamic of the Huxtables was groundbreaking for the culture, and as the matriarch, Mrs.Huxtable became a shining example for Black women and families everywhere. It was a career defining role for Rashad, whose personal celebrity was only enhanced.
The sisters would continue to parlay their success into other endeavors on screen and behind the scenes. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Rashad continued to act on screen and Broadway, while Allen went on to produce The Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World, which became a cult classic in its own right, raising a new generation of proud, Black, college-bound children. The duo also made history together, Rashad as the first Black woman to win a Tony Award for best actress for her 2004 role as Lena Younger in the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Allen as the first Black woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress in a television series, musical or comedy for her work on Fame.
As the years went on, they continued to shine bright, illuminating the culture and everything they touched with an essence hard to duplicate. Today, it has been more than five decades that the sisters have been a fixture in our cultural memory, earning numerous accolades for their work with a combined 22 Emmy nominations and wins, a Golden Globe, and four Tony nominations, Variety reports. Whether on stage where they’ve produced electrifying plays like Rashad’s 2013 production of August Wilson’s Fences, or in the building of pioneering institutions like the launch of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in 2001 or Rashad’s role as Dean of Fine Arts at Howard University, they have continued to define generations. Their shared impact on the Black community is undeniable and it will take centuries to truly encapsulate their lasting legacies.
Even more impressive than their collective resumes is how close they’ve remained closer than ever through it all. Raising their families and leaning on one another throughout the ebbs and flows of life. In 2018, the sisters were honored by the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for their innumerable contributions. Allen remarked that the night was extra special because it was the first honor the sisters were able to share, truly reflecting on all they had accomplished over the years.
“This night is about our legacy — the work that we have done over so many decades. We’re still so active doing what we do, we don’t stop to think about all that we have done…It means everything because that doesn’t happen — it’s always one or the other. We’re always there for each other, but it’s so nice to be here together,” Allen told reporters.
As we reflect on the magnitude of the legacy of women like Rashad and Allen, we look to the future of what’s viable for Black girls. May the trailblazing work of the Allen sisters serve as a guide for others to follow and a reminder that the universe is wild with opportunity and conspiring in favor of those who make their own way possible. Thank you to the remarkable Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen for leading the way. Because of them, we can!
Cover photo: Sister Act: The shared impact of Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad/Photos Courtesy of Joseph Marzullo/WENN