All About the Actress Sisters: Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen

Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen were surrounded by arts and culture since the beginning

Published Time: 29.06.2024 - 18:31:05 Modified Time: 29.06.2024 - 18:31:05

Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen were surrounded by arts and culture since the beginning.

The sisters were born in Houston to Andrew Arthur Allen, an orthodontist who loved theater, and Vivian Ayers Allen, an artist, poet, playwright, scholar and publisher. Their parents also welcomed their older brother, Andrew Arthur “Tex” Allen Jr, a jazz musician, and youngest sibling, Hugh Allen, a real estate banker.

The actresses have been close throughout their lives and supported each other on their creative paths, with Phylicia pursuing theater and Debbie gravitating toward dance — and their mother was the driving force in encouraging their creativity.

“We grew up with not a lot of money. We grew up with racial segregation. We grew up not being able to go to ballet class or downtown to a restaurant or to a movie," Debbie told the Los Angeles Times.

She continued, "But our mother always made us believe that we were part of a universe that welcomed us and wanted our creativity and was waiting for us to do something good. And so we’ve been doing that forever."

Here's everything to know about Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen's sibling relationship, from growing up in Houston to sharing the stage and screen as adults.

Vivian — Phylicia and Debbie’s multi-hyphenate mother — graduated from the historic Brainerd Institute in Chester, S.C., in 1939. She attended Barber-Scotia College and Bennett College, studied classical Greek and Mayan culture, and received honorary doctorates from Bennett College and Wilberforce University, according to The South Carolina Department of Education.

After moving to Houston, she embarked on a literary career and published a collection of poems titled "Spice of Dawns" in 1952, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Her following collection, "Hawk," was published in 1957. Described as “an allegory of freedom made analogous to space flight,” it was released only weeks before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I. "Hawk" was later celebrated by NASA, and enlarged reproductions of Dr. Allen’s writings are exhibited in the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.

More recently, Vivian's poem “On Status” was performed by her daughters and sampled by Houston-born artist Solange on the 2019 album When I Get Home.

Three years after their parents divorced in 1957, Vivian moved Phylicia and Debbie from Houston to Mexico City for nine months. “Mom was tired of the segregation and the racism, so she decided to take us out of here,” Debbie told The Washington Post.

The Grey’s Anatomy star had faced discrimination while trying to take classes at the Houston Foundation for Ballet (now Houston Ballet Foundation), but in Mexico, she danced with the Ballet Nacional de Mexico. “There were no other children. But Debbie was there, holding her own,” Phylicia remembered.

The sisters discussed their time in Mexico during a 2020 Instagram Live. “We were someplace where being Black was beautiful long before anyone clinched and raised a fist,” Phylicia recounted.

In addition to pursuing their respective passions, they became fluent in Spanish, and when they returned to Houston, Debbie reauditioned for the Houston Foundation for Ballet and was accepted with a full scholarship, becoming the first Black dancer with the company, according to Thirteen.org.

Phylicia and Debbie are graduates of Howard University in Washington, D.C., the HBCU that boasts alumni such as late actor Chadwick Boseman and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

Phylicia graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in theater in 1970, and Debbie earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater and classical Greek studies the following year. Both sisters also hold honorary doctorate degrees from their alma mater in addition to several other academic institutions.

Debbie established The Dr. Andrew Arthur Allen, Sr. Memorial Scholarship at Howard University in honor of their father. One of its famous recipients, Taraji P. Henson, thanked her in a video montage that was released to celebrate the release of Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, a film about Debbie and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Houston that she founded in 2000.

In 2021, after working as an instructor at Howard University, Phylicia was appointed dean of the college of fine arts. That same year, Howard renamed the school the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts following the 2020 death of the Black Panther star. Boseman was also one of Phylicia’s former students, along with Susan Kelechi Watson, who was Phylicia’s TV daughter on This Is Us.

“I never saw myself as a dean. But then, I’ve never thought of myself as many things that I’ve been," Phylicia told Variety upon her appointment. "It’s exciting to think about building towards a future with a College of Fine Arts and Howard University.”

After three years in the position, she stepped down from the role in May 2024. “I don’t always know what’s next and I like that because it’s what I don’t know that interests me most,” The Cosby Show alum told WUSA9 before her departure.

Throughout their television careers, the sisters have made guest appearances on each o -

f their long-running series, The Cosby Show and Grey’s Anatomy.

Debbie appeared in a 1988 episode of The Cosby Show, “If the Dress Fits, Wear It.” The actress and choreographer played Emma, an enthusiastic fitness instructor leading an exercise class that Clair goes to when she’s trying to fit into an old dress.

Decades later, Debbie shared a video of their scenes together on her Facebook page with the caption, “#TBT to Lish and I on The Cosby Show!”

In 2021, Phylicia guest starred on Grey’s Anatomy in the season 17 episode, “Sign O' the Times,” but did not share the screen with her sister. In it, she played Nell Timms, a woman impaled on a tear gas canister at the Seattle protests following the death of George Floyd.

Debbie spoke about Phylicia’s guest appearance with TVLine, saying, "Our cast and crew gave her a standing ovation in honor of her presence. I gave her a slice of cornbread."

In 1985, Phylicia married former professional football player and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad while she was starring as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. (She previously wed dentist William Lancelot Bowles, Jr. and the original lead singer of the Village People, Victor Willis.)

Rashad famously proposed to her on live TV during halftime in the Thanksgiving Day Lions-Jets football game. During their marriage, the actress and athlete welcomed their daughter, actress Condola Rashad, before divorcing in 2001. Phylicia also has a son from her marriage to Bowles, William Lancelot Bowles III.

Before Phylicia walked down the wedding aisle, Debbie married basketball player, two-time NBA champion and two-time NBA All-Star Norm Nixon the year in 1984. They have three children together: actor and producer Norman Ellard Nixon Jr., dancer-actress Vivian Nixon and actor DeVaughn Nixon.

She was previously married to Win Wilford, a publicist with CBS Records, from 1975 to 1983.

Phylicia’s Broadway career began in 1971 and she's starred in 13 productions, including Dreamgirls, Into the Woods and August: Osage County.

In 2004, she was the first Black actress to win the Tony Award for best actress in a play for her performance as Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. Nearly a decade later, in 2022, she earned her second Tony win for Skeleton Crew. The following year, she became a Broadway producer on the play Purlie Victorious, starring Leslie Odom, Jr.

Debbie started her career on Broadway in 1970 and has been a part of seven different productions as a dancer, actress, choreographer and director. She starred as Anita in the 1980 production of West Side Story, and in the 1986 production of Sweet Charity, she played the title role. Debbie received Tony nominations for both performances.

In addition to their on-screen collaborations, Phylicia and Debbie have worked together on the Broadway stage. Debbie directed Phylicia in the 2008 production of the Tennessee Williams' drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which also featured James Earl Jones, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard.

Besides Broadway, Debbie has been directing for the screen since 1984 and has stepped behind the camera for over 50 film, TV and music video projects.

Some of her most prominent directorial credits are 83 episodes of A Different World — which she also produced — and 40 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy to date, in addition to starring and executive producing the long-running series.

Meanwhile, Phylicia has directed stage productions like Gem of the Ocean and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, per Britannica. Although she hasn’t sat in the director's chair for a film or TV project yet, she's considered it in the past, according to Los Angeles Times.

Both Phylicia and Debbie’s daughters are creatives like their mothers, continuing their family’s artistic legacy, although both children have said that they weren't pushed toward the arts and show business.

Vivian Nixon, Debbie's daughter, was exposed to the world of TV as an infant, joining her mother on set. “I was in the bassinet under the piano during Fame,” she told Town & Country.

Nixon’s stage career has included an appearance on Broadway in Hot Feet and the role of Anita — the same role her mother played — in a touring production of West Side Story. On TV, she played Dr. Hannah Brody on Grey’s Anatomy and its spinoff, Station 19.

Condola Rashad first showed an interest in dance and piano at the age of 4. “We were included in whatever they were doing, and I aspired to that level of professionalism and love for what they do,” she recalled to the outlet.

She is an accomplished Broadway actress and four-time Tony nominee for her performances in Stick Fly, The Trip to Bountiful, A Doll's House, Part 2 and Saint Joan. She is also a film and TV star, and in 2023, she wrapped a seven-season run as Kate Sacker on the Showtime drama Billions.

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