Debbie Allen Surprised by Friend Jada Pinkett Smith While Accepting Governors Award at 2021 Emmys

Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompeo and Michael Douglas also presented the honor.

Debbie Allen gave a moving speech on Sunday night as she graciously accepted the Governors Award at the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards.

Following a video introduction by Gayle King, who called Allen the "ultimately multihyphenate" and a "creative supernova," the award itself was presented in appropriately dramatic fashion by Jada Pinkett Smith, Ava DuVernay, Ellen Pompeo and Michael Douglas. Upon walking onstage, Allen was met with a standing ovation from the room.

"Thank you to my friends for being here, what a surprise! I was just skating at [Jada's] 50th birthday, she didn't say a thing!" Allen gushed. "I am trembling with gratitude and grace. I'm trying not to cry and be equal to the situation, because it's been many years in the making."

"It's taken a lot of courage to be the only woman in the room most of the time. A lot of courage and creativity and fight and faith to believe that I could keep going -- and I have... I want to say thank you for this glorious moment in the sun," she continued, getting a chuckle when she scolded the prompter: "Honey, turn that clock off. I ain't paying no attention to it!"

Allen's list of thanks began with "all the gypsies, the dancers, the choreographers, the prophets and the poets" and included shout-outs to Steven Spielberg, Shonda Rhimes, Kobe Bryant and Captain Kangaroo, among others, as well as her husband and family. "Norman, I love you beyond measure."

"Let this moment resonate with women across this country and across the world," she concluded. "From Texas to Afghanistan, let them know. And also with young people... they're inheriting the world that we leave them. It is time for you to claim your power. Claim your voice. Say your song. Tell your stories. It will make us a better place. Your turn."

While speaking with reporters backstage after accepting her award, Allen said it was important to conclude her speech with a note to women and young people "because we're being challenged in a way right now that's unprecedented." 

"We can see everything right now. We can't just let this go, and the men on this earth have to stand with us," she noted. 

The 71-year-old performer was announced as this year's recipient "for her unprecedented achievements in television and her commitment to inspire and engage marginalized youth through dance, theater arts and mentorship," according to the Television Academy.

"Debbie Allen has been a creative voice for a generation of performers and storytellers and has left an indelible mark on the television industry," said Eva Basler, co-chair of the Governors Award selection committee.

Co-chair Debra Curtis added, "Debbie's commitment to mentoring underserved communities has been nothing short of extraordinary. She has shared her gift and love of dance and choreography with countless aspiring performers across the globe."

At the time, Allen reacted to the honor, saying, "To be celebrated by the Television Academy is an overwhelming honor that humbles me and says to my community of dancing gypsies, actors, writers and musicians that if you stay passionate about your craft and do the work, you can go far."

Over the course of her incredible career, Allen has earned 21 Emmy nominations with five wins.

The 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, aired live Sunday, Sept. 19 on CBS and Paramount+. For complete Emmys coverage, stay tuned to


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