Allen’s BR play ‘Pepito’s Story’ is tribute to a friend

“Pepito’s Story” marked the first collaboration between Debbie Allen and Derek Gordon.

At the time, Gordon was senior vice president for the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. And Allen was, well, Debbie Allen, producer, director, choreographer, dancer, actress.

Over a chance meeting at a D.C. function, Gordon suggested that Allen work on a project at the Kennedy Center.

So began a friendship that would last until Gordon’s death in 2012. By that time, he was chief executive officer of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge was his hometown, where he and Allen would collaborate on five dance productions before his death.

And it all began more than 15 years ago with “Pepito’s Story.”

Now Allen is staging the show in Baton Rouge with five performances in the Manship Theatre.

“Pepito’s Story” is based on Eugene Fern’s 1993 children’s book about a little boy named Pepito who loves to dance. He lives in the oceanside town of Padingo, where the other kids spend their time outside. They laughed at Pepito because he is different.

Finally, his grandmother consoles him with a poem.

“If every child were like every other, you wouldn’t know who was your sister or brother,” she says. “And if every flower looked just the same, ‘flower’ could be each flower’s name.”

Then the mayor’s daughter Estrelleita becomes ill. She has no friends, and her father orders the town’s children to bring her presents. The only gift Pepito has to offer is his dancing, which makes her so happy that she hops out of bed to dance with him.

“It’s a wonderful story of friendship with a great message of how it’s OK to be different,” Allen says.

Allen usually travels from her Los Angeles studios to Baton Rouge in January to audition dancers in what has become known as the Debbie Allen Dance Residency productions.

The job isn’t easy. Prospective dancers show up in droves and are divided into age groups. The audition process takes hours, beginning early in the afternoon and ending late at night. Callbacks take place the next day and final decisions are made.

And it’s only one of many of her ongoing projects.

Before coming to Baton Rouge, Allen was heading to the set of ABC’s television hit series “Scandal,” where she’ll be the director.

In Baton Rouge, she’ll direct a cast of young dancers from elementary to high school age, then she’ll return to Los Angeles to resurrect her recurring role on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Still, staging “Pepito” is special.

“It was all Derek’s idea,” Allen says. “He’s the one who suggested ‘Pepito’s Story,’ and he’s the one who suggested the collaboration with Arturo Sandoval.”

Jazz trumpeter and composer Sandoval composed the music for the production.

Gordon died on Sept. 10, 2012, and Allen returned to Baton Rouge in 2013 to stage “Here’s to Life — Derek’s Song,” to celebrate her friend. “Pepito’s Story” will be yet another tribute, harkening back to the beginning of their friendship.