You may know Jasmine Guy as Whitley Gilbert from the ‘80s sitcom A Different World, or as Sheila Bennet from The Vampire Diaries, or as Roxy Harvey from Dead Like Me.
Guy certainly has a long list of accomplishments. She made her TV debut in 1982 as a dancer in Fame, and premiered on the big screen as Dina in Spike Lee’s 1988 film, School Days. Along with her numerous television and movie roles, Guy has performed on Broadway, recorded an album, directed several plays and even written a book.
Guy is also a public speaker, and on Feb. 26, she will be speaking at UNF’s annual Martin Luther King scholarship luncheon in the Adam W. Herbert University Center.
The Spinnaker spoke with Guy over the phone Feb. 1 about her experiences, opportunities, and future plans.
Spinnaker: You’ve worked with a lot of big names like Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby and on a lot of different movies and shows and Broadway hits — is there any experience that stands out, that you feel you’ve learned the most from?
Jasmine Guy: Well there were major turning points in my life that maybe people never saw because it was on the stage as opposed to on a television or movie. The first biggest thing that happened to me was when I was 16, I got a six week scholarship to study at the Alvin Ailey School, and that’s what got me from Atlanta to New York, and that was the beginning of fulfilling my dreams.
I had that six week scholarship which rolled into me going into the junior company and the second company and doing Fame. And then I never came home. I said, ‘this is what I’ve always wanted to do.’ So it was that first thing that changed my life. I don’t think my parents would have let me go to New York without a school-ish thing, to just wing it and see if I could make it — not at that age.
The second turning point for me, I think, was probably School Daze, which was the movie that Spike Lee did. And what people don’t understand is it was before A Different World for me, even though it came out later. … So I got to say, that movie also made a shift in my career and my acceptance and my confidence as to what else I could do.
S: You’ve taken on the roles of being an actor, director, singer and even writer, have there ever been times when you’ve felt drawn more to one over the others?
JG: I really feel that my first language is dance, because I focused so much on that when I was young, and I learned so much during that period. But I could always sing and act, and I went to a performing arts high school where they encouraged us to do everything, to go beyond your first discipline. So it wasn’t a big jump for me to go into musicals after I left the Ailey company.
But the latter things, the writing and the directing — I have just said yes to opportunity. They weren’t necessarily goals of mine or anything I thought I could do well, but when presented the opportunity I felt like I had to say yes, you know?
It’s almost like if you ask God for direction and then He gives you those messages and you ignore them — that’s your shot. And I felt like, OK, this is an answer for me, like now what do I do? If I can explore new things. See what else is in you. Give back to actors, give your experience back. Learn how to communicate. Continue to grow. You’re not done. That’s where the writing and directing came in.
S: That’s a lot of different things! How have you balanced those with your personal life?
JG: When I was younger, like from 17 to 30 [or] 32, I worked constantly, and some of that is because I could do different things. So if I wasn’t singing backup, I was in the ensemble in a Broadway show or a tour. And I loved it. I was very happy and I was in one job always looking for the next.
And I was speaking sometime during A Different World at a high school in Chicago and I had a Q&A and a little boy asked me ‘So what do you do when you’re not working?’ And I did nothing — I had no answer. I was like ‘I go out to dinner … um, I like movies …’ And that was the first time I realized that I really hadn’t developed a personal life that defined me as Jasmine away from what I did, away from what I enjoyed doing the most.
And I used to hate breaks in between jobs. Now, I cherish them. Now I go ‘OK, this is me time. This is me to reconnect with my relationships.’ And I don’t mean men, I just mean friends, family, people that love me that I need to keep in touch with. I also have a daughter now, which fills in all of those gaps I had before her. That was a big lesson learned for me, to enjoy my own company.
S: Yeah, I can imagine that’d be hard when you’re playing a bunch of different roles.
JG: Yeah, and just on the go all the time. And I’m telling you, it was fun. You know what I mean? I was loving it. There were people along the way — like Spike Lee would say, ‘I read three newspapers every morning.’ And I knew actors that were politically active, so their world was broad. It was just bigger than just going to the set and going home. So it was a lesson I heard earlier in my life and just didn’t pay attention to.
S: In School Daze and in A Different World you’ve been in some roles that have highlighted intra-racial classism and the problem of dark skinned and light skinned issues within the African American community. Have you felt those kind of issues in your own personal life?
JG: I have, but not to the extent that was expressed in School Daze. In fact, when I was doing School Daze I kept going ‘is this relevant?’ It felt dated to me, like in the 30’s and 40’s, when there were paper bag tests, and if you were darker than a paper bag they wouldn’t allow you in certain organizations and schools, and only the light skinned, which they created as an elite, or they kept as an elite from the plantation system. And it felt old like that to me, you know, ‘aren’t we done with this?’
S: Have you still heard feedback on that, that it’s still a big issue to talk about?
JG: I don’t. I really don’t now because I feel the two generations after me have kind of obliterated that. … I really don’t think that intra-racial conflict is still strong. What I feel is strong now is the class differences. I feel like we’re pulling further and further away from the bottom. And no matter what color that bottom is, they’re being less educated, they’re being less exposed and that’s more of what I see now than racism I see classism.
S: You’re coming to UNF to speak at the MLK Scholarship Luncheon, and you’ve been able to direct a musical about his life in Atlanta. Having grown up in Atlanta and learned a lot about MLK and his legacy, what does it mean to have the opportunity to do things like that?
JG: I did grow up as a contemporary with MLK’s children and I [knew] his parents, and he was always a real man to me. And as time has gone by he’s become iconic, and in some ways we forget that this is a man. This is a man with inner conflicts, outer conflicts, reluctance that he fought through to do what he did. And for that reason he is that much greater.
This wasn’t a saint that flew down and did this, this was a man that fought obstacles in his own inner life: reluctance, and I think that’s an important message for me to bring to the audience. I don’t know how old my audience is going to be. And I tie it into the show because I know everybody loves A Different World, and Whitley, and I learned a lot doing that show so I have a lot of good stories.
S: What are some of your future plans? You’re still in the acting realm, but do you see yourself continuing acting or directing or writing more?
JG: Right now I’m writing a play based on the book I wrote, Evolution of a Revolutionary. And that’s really challenging because I’ve never written a play, and it’s an adaptation so there’s a guideline or box I have to work in because I’m dealing with real people. So that’s what I’m doing now.
I’m also recurring on Vampire Diaries. They resurrect me from the dead every now and then.
I just finished directing a play called The Mountain Top, which was a new play but about Martin Luther King. I’m doing a lot of speaking engagements in February … I’m also getting very involved with a campaign that was created called Not Yours. It is about sex trafficking. We’re focusing on young people from 13 to 18 years old and the system, and it’s a problem here in Atlanta, we’re up in the top 10 in the nation. So I’ve been devoting a lot of time to that.
S: How did you get involved with that?
JG: I was asked to visit a home of victims of sexual slavery and exploitation and I was so impressed with what that facility was doing to heal these girls, to rehabilitate them and educate them. That’s how I started getting involved … Once I got to know the cause I said, you know, ‘I need to be more with it, it needs a face, especially here in Atlanta.’
Email Dargan Thompson at email@example.com
Jasmine Guy will speak at the Martin Luther King scholarship luncheon Feb. 26 at noon in the Adam W. Herbert University Center. A limited number of tickets for students are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Otherwise, tickets for individuals are $30. Tickets can be picked up or purchased at the UNF Ticket Box Office at (904) 620-2878 or on line at https://www.ticketreturn.com/prod2/team.asp?SponsorID=5271.