“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” ― Langston Hughes
It’s raining here in VA, when I finally talk to television and stage star, Jasmine Guy. Turns out it’s also raining in Atlanta, which is where Ms. Guy has called me from, following business meetings and the like, which have delayed our scheduled interview time to later this afternoon.
She sounds exquisite over the phone. Not like Whitley of course, but exquisite nevertheless, with a speaking voice that blends southern charm and candor, with educated nuance and clarity. I like her immediately.
Jasmine is calling to discuss Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey, a theatrical production that illustrates and examines the works of Harlem Renaissance thinkers and artists; through text, song, movement, imagery, and of course―music. The Atlanta native stars in it, accompanied by the Avery Sharpe Trio. It plays the historic Crispus Attucks Theater on Church Street tonight, for one night only. I ask Guy if this will be her first time performing at the Attucks.
“It will be my first time there, and I know it’s one of the oldest theatres, so I’m excited… I love that, like the Apollo… because there was a time when we only had our own theatres.” I mention to her, which she quickly agrees with, that there’s a special synergy to having this production about this 1920s Black Arts movement, which was centered in Harlem, performed at a theatre conceived and financed by African American entrepreneurs, which actually opened in 1919. Many of the greatest names in early to mid-twentieth century African-American artistry performed at the “Apollo Theater of the South,” including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole. “So that is like the perfect place for this show,” she would say.
Indeed it is. When the show played Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater back in 2007, The New York Amsterdam News raved that “Raisin Cane’ set the bar for a unique genre of edutainment that served to pay homage to one of the greatest periods of cultural development among Blacks in the U.S., the Harlem Renaissance.” Written by classical cellist and playwright, Harry Clark, with its original score by Avery Sharpe, and directed by Dan Guerrero, Raisin Cane’ is a theatrical hybrid of sorts: combining elements of traditional theatre and song delivery, with the feel of newer, cutting edge stage works, that incorporate spoken word and multi-media projection. Inspired by Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel, “Cane”, the work is part history lesson, part musical revue, part narrative oratory about the art of writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen. It also covers the visual art, music and social movement scholarship of the time, from intellectuals like W.E. B. Dubois to artists like Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas.
“This story has become so interactive with the audience,” Jasmine says. “Do you know who W. E. B. Dubois is?” she might ask. “We have such a wonderful relationship with the audience that has just grown and grown.” I ask Ms. Guy how long she’s been with the show.
“He (Avery Sharpe) brought me on, about 6 or 7 years ago, when we did our first staged reading of it,” she answers. “Since then, we’ve performed it, hundreds of times, all over the country.”
“It turned into this kind of journey… let me take you through the decade of, 1920 to 1930, the Harlem Renaissance, after World War I and right before the Great Depression,” Guy further explains, regarding the production’s evolution. “I love the Harlem Renaissance.”
I love the Harlem Renaissance as well. I tell Jasmine that I have long considered myself a part of a small, but varied group of artists, lay people and thinkers, known simply as Harlem Renaissance Enthusiasts. When I share this with her, she seems genuinely surprised and relieved even, that she doesn’t, as she puts it, “have to justify the decade” to me as a writer.
“My passion for this show came out of heart…” she later explains. “It (the show) evolved into the music and dance that is infused in the show, but it’s really not about that.” She goes on to expound upon the show’s exploration of the political history of the time, and the real lineage of black activism, which has led to our current day realities, good and bad, here in America, and for the African American community specifically. Her passion for the subject appears not only heartfelt, but also well researched and articulated.
“The only reason I’m doing this play… and I invest in it personally and financially, is that it reaches other people, and it reaches young people too,” she states. “Our history is often regurgitated… back to us.”
“Artists become political figures by accident.” That statement from Guy makes me think about how artists really can transform people and impact society, regardless of how cliché it might seem. I mention to Ms. Guy that her iconic television role of Whitley Gilbert, which she originated on the hit NBC sitcom, A Different World, which ran from 1987 to 1993, inspired me, and others of my generation, in so many profound ways… especially as a Virginian.
Whitley was television’s first black southern belle, and she was glamorous as hell. Gilbert was from an elite black family in Richmond, and she wore her pedigree like the diva she was entitled to be. Additionally, Hillman, the fictional HBCU that the show centers around, is also located in a fictional town of Virginia. I ask her if she had any idea that the show was a source of pride for a number of Virginians, who got the VA connections.
“I really, really, did not. I was just trying to get that gig,” she openly admits. “I’ve been in there two times. I haven’t been hired. I’ve got to go in there like somebody else.” So that is when Whitley, as we know her, with that distinctive southern accent and all, was born. Still, she doesn’t take credit for the show’s success. “It is the genius of our writers and Debbie Allen that made it what it was.”
“…I did my role well. I’d say I worked it, but within the construct of what I was dealing with, that’s not the only reason that it succeeded,” she asserts. “I know that a Whitley Gilbert couldn’t exist without a Kimberly Reese…or without a Dwayne Wayne.” Guy would, of course, go on to win six consecutive NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy series, a feat that has never been equaled.
Since Guy’s breakthrough success with A Different World, she has had a lot of success starring in Broadway shows like Grease and Chicago, as well as supporting work in a variety of television series, including Melrose Place, Touched by an Angel and even recently, The Vampire Diaries. But here in the 757, we get to see her up close and in person, acting as a singing and dancing Griot, who navigates an oral history of the Harlem Renaissance, along with some world class jazz accompaniment by the Avery Sharpe Trio.