Debbie Allen, Wallis Annenberg and Shonda Rhimes
"Debbie, you've got to come meet me right now." So said Shonda Rhimes one day in 2017, on a call to Debbie Allen, the executive producing director on Rhimes's Grey's Anatomy.
The meeting place? Not an office suite or an industry hangout, but a street corner in a business district near L.A.'s Koreatown, site of an empty warehouse. The Emmy-winning actress-dancer-choreographer had been looking for a larger home for her Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA), the nonprofit she and husband Norm Nixon founded in 2000 to give children of color the chance to experience the performing arts.
"Shonda said, 'I've got to show you this building,'" Allen recalls. "She bought this land, this building, and I was amazed!"
Rhimes not only purchased the 24,000-square-foot warehouse, she donated it to DADA. And thus was born The Rhimes Performing Arts Center, home to DADA and the Debbie Allen Middle School, which combines academic classes with arts curricula. After Covid-delayed renovations (made possible in part by a $1 million donation from philanthropist Wallis Annenberg), the center celebrated its grand opening in April.
"I could have just put wood floors down and started then," Allen says. Instead, the global architecture and design firm Gensler agreed to transform the building on a pro bono basis. The ultramodern facility has five state-of-the art studios, a performance space that seats 200, classrooms, offices and a newly added second story with a terrace.
Allen and Rhimes first met when the megaproducer's children were DADA students.
"As a parent, I watched as my own daughters and their peers were taught not only to dance, but to believe in themselves, to work hard and to dream big," Rhimes says via email. "I also saw there was so much opportunity for DADA to grow and change the lives of even more children. When I learned that they were interested in expanding, I jumped at the opportunity to help. Finding the building and helping to secure it as the new home for DADA has been an incredible journey."
Rhimes and Allen were heavily involved in the design process, which retained some elements of the 1921 building, such as exposed brick walls, as part of a sleek, light-filled study in black and white and glass. New programs include musical theater production, aerial performance instruction and Playwrights Rising, which showcases readings of new work before invited industry members.
Allen says she recruited some of her television colleagues to help with the center — "people who have tremendous belief, respect and hope for everything that we do."
Not the least of whom, of course, is Rhimes herself. "I hope to participate in any way that would benefit the students," she says. "I am proud, hopeful and excited to watch this opportunity unfold."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2022, under the title, "Building a Dream Come True."