Jasmine Guy had a flair for acting before she even understood what the verb meant. As a 4-year-old, she would playfully pretend to faint in front of the teenage son of her babysitter, who would sigh, “Oh, she’s such a little actress.”
“I didn’t know what an actress really was,” Guy, now 52, said in a telephone interview. “I knew that what I just did was a lot of fun. I was always doing stuff like that, pretending I was something else, playing my Mary Poppins albums, learning all the parts and dancing in the shows.”
Guy, who began her professional career at 17 with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, would go on to star as Whitley in the television show A Different World (1987-93) and appear in the films School Daze and Harlem Nights. She also performed in such Broadway hits as Chicago, Grease and The Wiz.
For the past five years, Guy has starred in Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey, a touring theatrical production that evokes the creative and political atmosphere of Harlem in the 1920s.
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The piece was inspired by Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel Cane and combines poetry, dancing, original music and songs by popular musicians of the period such as Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith. It comes to South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The Washington Post spoke to Guy about the show and her career:
Beyond reading up on the various writers from that period, was there anything else you did to prepare for the role?
I watched a lot of documentaries and tried to look at the style and the way the women carried themselves during that time, because it was a very elegant time as well. It was a time for black people to dress up. “We’re taking these overalls off, and we’re going to the Savoy.”
It was a time to wear hats and gloves and to be respected and not called “boy” anymore. You know it was just like this dream kind of world, still separate but in its own way having an equal life to what else was going on in the ’20s. I like to see the visuals, I like to see whatever footage I can.
You began your career as a dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. What is your favorite thing about performing on stage?
I love the immediate connection, and I love being on stage with other people. I like the connection between us and the audience, but also what goes on with us. I love rehearsals. I love the whole process. I guess it’s just ... it’s my family, you know.
I think if I had started in TV without ... the eight years of theater I had prior to getting A Different World, I would have missed out on everything: my foundation, my work ethic, my ability to listen and appreciate and learn. I already had that when I got on television, and I watched younger actors that had no theatrical experience, and their approach was very different than mine. They seemed more disconnected to the entire process, because that teaches you “stand on your mark, say your line, walk over here.” It doesn’t teach you to embrace the entire process and the other 50 people that are making this work.
You’ve said that one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned in life is learning how to “live in between the gigs.” When you’re not performing, what brings you the most joy and creative release?
Being home, being with my friends, going over to my girlfriends’ house. I like to talk and tell stories and hear stories and laugh. I love being with my family, so, kind of boring, but fulfilling moments. ... I think I need to recharge, and being around family, little kids, the chaos ... it kind of just grounds me and it brings me a lot of joy.
Your daughter, Imani, is 15 years old. Is she interested in the entertainment world?
I think she wants to act. I think she’s hesitant, because unlike me she has a very intimate knowledge of the business. I say unlike me, because I just went for it without knowing the bad side, and I kind of soared until my 30s, and then it was like, “Oh, I need to reevaluate and see where I am,” so she’s experiencing me after success and without seeing that process in the beginning. But she sees what a later life is gonna look like, and she’s very smart and she writes well, so I think she’s gonna go into the arts. And I’m supportive of that, but I think she wants to find a calling.
Tickets: www.smdcac.org 786-573-5300; $25-$45