The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts honored longtime entertainers and sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad at Monday night’s “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a spring performance in homage to their lives and careers, and without the acknowledgement of their disgraced former colleague Bill Cosby.
The star-studded night featured musical performances from multiple stage veterans, including Jennifer Holliday, Maurice Hines, Gladys Knight, and Arturo Sandoval, as well as speeches from Halle Berry, Shonda Rhimes, Common, Norman Lear, Nigel Lythgoe, Raven-Symoné, and Alfre Woodard.
“This night is about our legacy — the work that we have done over so many decades,” Allen told Variety ahead of the performance. “We’re still so active doing what we do, we don’t stop to think about all that we have done.”
Berry, Common, Lear, Rhimes, and more focused particularly on Rashad’s beloved performance as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” highlighting its influential and positive representation that Berry called “what a powerful black woman, mother, and head of the household can look like.” But the ceremony largely excluded mentions of Rashad’s TV husband, Cosby.
Rashad’s former co-star on the series was recently charged on multiple counts of sexual assault, resulting in the rescinding of many of the comedy legend’s accumulated accolades. Cosby’s presence was reduced to brief video clips spotlighting Rashad’s performances on the show. However, Lear did note during his speech that, to his disappointment, Rashad’s wide-reaching impact as Clair “tends to get overlooked in the hubbub surrounding the show.”
Both Allen and Rashad have each received many honors over the course of their careers, including a collective 22 Emmy nominations and wins, a Golden Globe, and four Tony nominations, one of which Rashad won for her performance in “A Raisin in the Sun” — making her the first black woman to receive the honor in a dramatic leading role. Allen also became the first black woman to nab a Golden Globe for best actress in a TV musical or comedy in 1983 for “Fame.”
But to Allen, the Wallis Annenberg honor was particularly special because it is the first the sisters have been able to share.
“It means everything because that doesn’t happen — it’s always one or the other,” Allen said. “We’re always there for each other, but it’s so nice to be here together.”
Distinguished guests paid tribute to the sisters throughout the night in the form of performances, speeches, songs, and dances. Many placed an emphasis on Allen and Rashad’s trailblazing careers as women of color. In her speech, Berry thanked the honorees for being “North Stars” for her, “as an African American actress and as a young actress,” and for women of color in the industry overall.
“We are so, so very lucky to be standing on the shoulders of such beautiful, talented giants,” Berry said.
Knight closed out the musical portion of the ceremony with a medley that began with “Wind Beneath My Wings,” altering the lyrics slightly in dedication to Allen and Rashad, who took the stage last to thank the performers and other attendees for taking “a moment to look back as we’re looking forward.”