*Peel back all of Jasmine Guy’s layers and at her core you will find an artiste.
During our interview, I deciphered Guy meant it when she stated, “I am art” on the spoken word recording of “My Language” (from the album “Medicine” by the Black Academy of Arts and Letters). She has not begun to get the credit she deserves for contributions in music, dance, and theater. We salute Ms. Guy for evolving an eclectic collage of work into a legacy of which we can all be proud.
Guy is most “unsung” as a dancer. Dancing, which she continues to teach, was her first love. Her career as a professional dancer started when she prodigiously arabesqued her way into the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater at 15. At forty something, the divorcee and mother of 12-year-old Imani was still doing cart wheels and splits as Thelma Kelly in the Broadway production of “Chicago.”
Although the multi-hyphenate achieved acclaim in the comedic acting role of Whitley Gilbert (“A Different World”), this Georgia Peach has blazed the small screen in Alex Haley’ s epic mini-series “Queen” and a role in “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” The artist has appeared in over 17 films including, “Dead Like Me: Life After Death.”
One of the most creatively flexible in the business (dancer, actress, writer, choreographer and director), Guy always believed she could do it all, emulating her mentor-turned-friend Debbie Allen. Hollywood has not always agreed.
After over 20 years of performing on stage and in film she decided to pour all of her gifts into a reservoir of talent called the True Colors Theatre in Atlanta where she serves as a director.
Guy talked to me about her passionate marriage to the arts and how she feels about the trend of non-actresses becoming instant celebrities and in a “sidebar” moment defends Tyler Perry’s decision to cast Kim Kardashian in an upcoming movie.
Mona Austin: What was your motivation for joining the Alliance Theater?
Jasmine Guy: I said what can I do that will combine me in one package and serve a purpose and serve something that I’m passionate about. Other than being at the receiving end of so many benefits where people call me to do things. What do I want? I’d kind of lost that. As a young person I definitely had that. . .I was very present, very clear about my goal and how to achieve it. I really want to help the art community here in Atlanta. The community has been very giving to me and very embracing. . .even things I didn’t know I could do like direct, teach, write a play, perform in dramatic roles. All of the things that I had sort of been denied in L.A. I received here in Atlanta.
MA: What kept you motivated to do anything when you felt yourself get in a quandary about what to do?
JG: Debbie Allen is one of my mentors. I felt as I changed from dancer to musical theater to I want to be an actor I was always told “no” by somebody.
In the back of my mind I would go well Debbie did it. Well Debbie did became my mantra for many things because she was doing the same thing I was trying to do and
She was always ahead of me doing it, doing it alone and maybe with no positive feedback other than her self esteem or her family. So I knew it could be done. Then I looked at the people who I thought were weird. I always considered myself weird like Shirley McClain or Bette Midler. Those were the singer, dancer actor people that I knew I was. I think it’s important for young people to know they are not alone even in their uniqueness.. . .I always looked to [them] even if they were fictitious friends. Then in my household I had the mantra of ‘jack of all trades master of none.’ My parents made me choose along the way. . .Now academics were first. If I hadn’t kept up my grades none of this would be possible.
Striving for greatness was always one of my goals, but. . .I had to settle for being great at being good at many things.
MA: Would your expectations of yourself be as high if your parents hadn’t raised the bar so high?
JG: Absolutely. My parents raised me and to this day greatly influence me. I thank God for that. Your parents are hard on you, but they know you the best. That’s why when I’m writing I call my mom. When I open a play I’m directing my parents have to see it. I need my notes from them. My real notes.. . To this day my parents are supportive, but they are not supportive of mediocrity. Whatever it is you claim, you gotta come with it.
MA: What is your benchmark for success?
JG: My benchmark is different from the public’s. I have to say my first bench mark was getting into“Westside Story” at Northside School of Performing Arts. (Billy Densmore, the teacher helped her recognize she had potential for Broadway). I went in as a chorus girl and ended up with the part of Anita. . .The second was when I auditioned for the Alvin Ailey Company at 15 and they gave me a scholarship to their school. I went there right after high school, two weeks after I graduated and that changed my life. I always wanted to dance with Alvin Ailey. . .it changed everything for me. I t was goal oriented then I was alble to work ack from there, so when I got that in high school there was no doubt in my mind where I would go. It was from there that got Fame, met Debbie, auditioned for Debbie and that led to other things. But those were the crucial moments, I feel. You know everybody’s gonna say ‘A Different World,’ and I don’t discount it but a ‘Different World’ wouldn’t have happened with those things not in place.