By Jerome Langston
It is early in my phone conversation with actress Jasmine Guy that I remember what I’d loved about our first time chatting, back in 2014, when the triple-threat performer first brought her Harlem Renaissance show to the 757. Jasmine keeps it extra real. The Atlanta native and preacher’s kid, famously known for portraying the lead character of Whitley Gilbert in The Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World, sounds nothing like the black southern belle she portrayed so well for the entire six seasons of the iconic sitcom. Gone is the famous southern accent that she created to land the role of Whitley. And though she does come from some privilege, Jasmine is not at all rigid or bougie like Whitley was—in fact, she’s quite earthy, passionate, and most importantly to me―a humor filled conversationalist.
“You know ice and Atlanta is not a good combo,” she says with a slight chuckle. I laugh, and tell her the two don’t mix well in Virginia either. It is the morning of the impending “blizzard,” so the actress, who still happily resides in Atlanta, has been out getting supplies in preparation. She tells me that it took her eight hours, a couple years or so back, to pick up her daughter Imani from school, during a winter storm. “I’m not doing that again,” she says with conviction.
That infamous Atlanta traffic gridlock incident happened in 2014, the same year that Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey, made its local premiere here at the Attucks Theatre. It was an amazing show—a mixed-media theatrical gem that encompassed music, still images, and oratory—in ways rarely seen work successfully in American theater. I ask Jasmine if the show has changed significantly since then.
“It is constantly morphing,” she says. “We’re constantly editing the show, making it as potent as possible, but also giving the musicians room to vamp.” Performing in the show with the acclaimed Avery Sharpe Trio has made Jasmine more comfortable with improvisation. “They’ve taught me how to be a jazz actor.”
Taking its inspiration from Jean Toomer’s classic novel “Cane,” published in 1923, Raisin’Cane celebrates and contextualizes the Harlem Renaissance for theater audiences. Never have the words and artistry of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E. B. Du Bois, and other Harlem Renaissance artists and thinkers, been so remarkably displayed for the stage. Jasmine occupies the role of Griot: dancing, singing and delivering passionate oratorical history lessons about America’s sexiest literary era, and the larger social framework of black life that it existed in, during the early 20th century following World War I.
“I really feel so strongly about telling our stories…in ways that are accessible to people, and not just young people, but all people,” Jasmine says. “Everything is not Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King…there were many, many people, that already saw this…our plight as an issue, and tried to rectify it in their time, with the equipment that they had.”
Written by Harry Clark, directed by Dan Guerrero, and with a lively jazz score by Avery Sharpe, whom Jasmine has now known for decades, the two-act production has played many theatres throughout the country, since it premiered some years back. It plays Hampton’s American Theatre next month.
Jasmine Guy is, like I, a Harlem Renaissance enthusiast. We are a relatively small group, but are nevertheless passionate about 1920s era Harlem, and its time as the Black Mecca for creative expression rooted in our culture. Great literature, jazz, visual art, the now iconic fashion of the black middle class, and black intellectuals―Harlem was the shit back then.
“I always feel like I was born too late,” Jasmine says, during an early part of our conversation. Her formative years were during the seventies, which in part explain her love for the three Cs of black cinema: Car Wash, Claudine, and yes, Cooley High. The singer/actress/dancer wishes she could have been born in the fifties, so that she could have been around during the Motown era. “I got disco,” she says, with a giggle.
She also got a career that rivals many of her heroes growing up. Jasmine has won six consecutive NAACP Image awards for her work in A Different World. She also appeared in perhaps my favorite Spike Lee joint, School Daze. Recently, she’s had small screen roles on both Tyler Perry’s If Loving You Is Wrong, and K. C. Undercover. And there are fans that are still awaiting the follow-up to Guy’s self-titled 1990 debut album, which garnered multiple R&B hits, including “Just Want to Hold You,” a ballad that broke through at Pop radio as well.
Before our conversation concludes, Jasmine and I mention the disheartening election of Trump, discuss college options for her daughter, and tells me about the brilliance of Hidden Figures, a film produced by Pharrell that I haven’t yet seen. She also expresses how much she still loves performing in Raisin’ Cane.
“When we do this show, it’s really an act of love, and what I love about it, is that people receive it in such a beautiful way.”
WANT TO GO?
Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey
Starring Jasmine Guy & The Avery Sharpe Trio
Saturday, February 11th
The American Theatre