The Different Worlds Of Jasmine Guy
NEAL CONAN, host:
The name Jasmine Guy instantly evokes her unforgettable character Whitley Gilbert, the slightly snobby Southern college girl from the 1980's sitcom, "A Different World." But take one look at her resume and your first thought is, how can one person do all this? She occasionally directed "A Different World," starred in the Eddie Murphy film, "Harlem Nights" and "America's Dream" with Wesley Snipes on stage. She's been in revivals of "Chicago," "Grease," and "The Wiz" on Broadway. She co-wrote a book with Afeni Shakur, the former Black Panther and mother of rapper Tupac Shakur. And she's just completed directing and choreographing the revival of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" in Atlanta. Jasmine Guy gives a lot of time to philanthropic organizations as well and she's a mother.
Later this week, she will be here in Washington, D.C. for the Harlem Renaissance Festival to headline a special tribute to Langston Hughes alongside Blair Underwood and Isaiah Washington. She does not get here until Friday, so we catch up with her today from her hometown in Atlanta.
If you'd like to talk with Jasmine Guy, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at npr.org. Just go to that Web site and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Jasmine Guy, very nice of you to join us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. JASMINE GUY (Actress): Hi, Neal. Thank you for having me. I didn't know we were going to have company. We get phone calls?
CONAN: Oh, we're going to get phone calls, too, yeah.
Ms. GUY: Oh, cool. Okay, great.
CONAN: We know there's a tremendous number of fans around there, so we hope that they have something other to say than how much they love you. But anyway…
Ms. GUY: Oh.
CONAN: …let's start with Whitley Gilbert. Such an iconic character on "A Different World." Was that after the show - after that run was over, and it was a great run, but was that character hard to shake?
Ms. GUY: Well, you know, when I was doing the role, I didn't realize the power of the show, the power of - the effect that we were having on the nation, the outside community. We had - I mean, now, these numbers seem enormous, you know? Twenty million viewers a week, 30 million viewers a week, you know, with so many more channels and choices, we don't get those kind of numbers. But I felt at the time I was part of something special, especially being a "Cosby" spin-off, which, of course, "The Cosby Show" was iconic at the time that it was on television. What has been amazing to me is the effect that the show has had on young people going to college and the exposure that we've given to historically black colleges, which I also didn't realize because I grew up in Atlanta, across the street from Morehouse College, actually. I didn't realize that so many people didn't know about historically black colleges and the importance of them in our country. So those things had been revealed to me in the last, you know, 10, 15 years since the show has been off the air. Well, not off the air, but since I haven't been doing it.
CONAN: Since you haven't done it.
Ms. GUY: Now, as far as Whitley goes, she's another weird period…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: …in my life when I simply created something that would get me a gig. You know, I wish I had a little bit more motivation behind her. But I had auditioned for "Cosby" several times and had also auditioned for "A Different World" and had been rejected. And I figured, well, I'm just going to go in with something completely different from me, you know? I bumped the naturalistic approach and created a character that was kind of - her accent was based on my third grade teacher in Atlanta. And her whole demeanor and poise was really, I thought, made up until I really met other Whitleys later in my life - real black Southern belles. I thought, what's a black Southern belle? Black people were picking cotton when there were Southern belles, you know, is there such a thing?
But there is definitely an upper, middle-class black echelon that Whitley represented that I didn't realize at the time, that has rarely had a voice on television or anywhere else, you know? Blacks, sometimes, they're depicted in one way, and I think "Cosby" and "A Different World" gave great variety to who we are as black people as far as class and background.
And Whitley was fun to play because she was always, to me, a fish out of water going to an all-black college. I always assumed she had gone to prep schools…
Ms. GUY: …and been a little isolated from her African-American culture. And so she was learning as she went to Hillman, socializing and - and also, you know, her - her romantic relationship with Dwayne Wayne, I think, helped to equalize her and make her more - more real and more earthy as the seasons went on and as the years went on the with the show.
CONAN: Well, your success in that role and the success of the show, as you say, it was, you'll excuse the expression, "A Different World," and shows like that got a lot more people watching them than shows do today. But that sort of a success helped you launch, well, a bunch of other stuff, including putting out a record - you had a number of hits.
Ms. GUY: Yes, I did a record while I was on "A Different World." I toured Japan. I won awards, but you know, I have to say that I come from the theater. I was a dancer first. I danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. I was on the "Fame" television series. And - but most of my theater background was musical theater and I was used to having to do everything. I was a gypsy, you know. I told people I could tap even then if I couldn't, just so I could get into bubble and brown sugar and I learned in the laundry room in my apartment building, you know?
What we did, we grabbed each other. The singers grabbed the dancers. The dancers grabbed the actors. And we learned the other things that we weren't as strong in. But I was, you know, I come from a world of triple threats and that's how we worked. And that's what was expected of us. And that's kind of the school that I come from. You know, you can claim your first discipline, I claim as dance. But I've always tried to do other things and tried to be good in those other arenas as well.
CONAN: I've read in another interview that you did that of all the fields of show business that you've worked in, the music industry was the worst.
Ms. GUY: Yeah, that's just my opinion.
CONAN: I know that, but tell us why.
Ms. GUY: But…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: I just, you know, first of all, coming from theater, coming from a world of discipline, coming from a world of, I would - I would say greatness. You know, I have seen and worked with greatness. I just didn't - I didn't get the gloss. I didn't get the smoke and mirrors effect of the music business. And we're talking about the music business in the '80s, in the - well, no, actually the early '90s. And it was a little difficult for me. You know, I'd have a theater - I'd have a studio session at 6:00 and nobody would get there until 9:30 and I'd in the corner taking a nap, waiting for everyone to show up. I just wasn't used to the lax - the laxness of it. And I also wasn't used to the lack of organic - you know, back then it was very much - it was almost like popping in every note, you know?
My album came out at a time when Paula Abdul was hot. Videos were making a huge impact on the business. And I was coming from a more live organic perspective and that was a little difficult for me to adapt to.
CONAN: All right. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Jasmine Guy is our guest and we'll start with Laurie. Laurie with us from Philadelphia.
LAURIE (Caller): Hello.
LAURIE: I just wanted to - I have a brief statement and a quick question. I first wanted to just say thank you to Jasmine Guy because you were such a breath of fresh air as - I should say Whitley Gilbert, the character, because for those of us who did come from kind of upper middle class black environment, or families, I should say, but we were still like a fish out of water, you gave us somebody to aspire to and to make it, because you are was so - the character was so unapologetic for who she was. And it was just such a, you know, even more so than the Cosby show as we were, you know, getting older. It was just such a wonderful thing to have someone who we could relate to, and even, you know, as you're saying before on the show, as Neal was - I think it (unintelligible) whatever, but saying how her at an all black college, you know, she was learning more about what it meant to be black.
So many of Whitley's experiences mirrored my own and the feel other black people that I grew up with who are having similar experiences. So it was just such a great, great character, and my question, my quick question is - I'm wondering, it sounds like, you know, you're doing so many things now. But I feel like you have maintained a kind of quiet, you know, under the radar persona. Do you cultivate your privacy or do you want to be more, I mean, are you - I (unintelligible) I want to see more of you and I think more people want to see more of you.
And I'm just wondering, are you doing more behind the scenes things because you, you know, you don't want to be out there in the public so much anymore?
CONAN: We've arranged for some paparazzi outside the studio in Atlanta.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: That's an interesting question. I should have known I was not going to be prepared for this interview no matter what I did.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: You should see my notes. They have nothing to do with anything we've talked about so far.
Ms. GUY: That's - that's very, first of all, thank you for what you said about the character. And I have to say that Whitley was a collaborative creation. Of course, I didn't write the show, I didn't direct the show, and I would be remiss in not crediting Susan Fales-Hill, who was the head writer on the show for the six years that we did it. And Debbie Allen, who directed the show and who came in in our second season, having graduated from Howard University, bringing it the reality of actually being on a black campus. I think you can see the marked difference in our very first season versus what the show became.
Ms. GUY: And Susan Fales-Hill, who was an educated black young writer at the time had experienced a lot of what Whitley did. I venture to say that a lot of it was autobiographical, even though Susan herself is not Southern.
Ms. GUY: The depth of the - being caught between worlds and having to negotiate as a very young person how and where you fit in with knowing French, with knowing how to ride horses, and nobody cares about that. Nobody really cared about the things Whitley could do well.
Ms. GUY: Nobody cared about tea, you know? So here she is, you know, and what I love about it is it shows classism.
Ms. GUY: Intra-racial classism.
Ms. GUY: Which is a whole 'nother, you know, set of problems that - that we face in our community.
Ms. GUY: Like I said, we are - are many different things with our community, but we seem to have been defined as only one thing, as being black. And even during that time, you know, I was in "School Days," which was Spike Lee's second movie after "She's Gotta Have It."
LORY: Of course we remember that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: Yes, because (singing) you don't want to be alone tonight…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: But again, you know, I was, what, 20, 23 when I did that. I did it actually before "A Different World," but here is your Spike blasting all this information nationally that at that point had been very private.
Ms. GUY: You know, no one other than black people knew that there was a light-skin/dark-skin thing that goes on within the black community…
Ms. GUY: …and being in it and of it and around it, I didn't see what the big news flash was.
Ms. GUY: And we were actually filming "School Daze" - in fact, I thought that that was an antiquated theme.
Ms. GUY: When the movie comes out, you know, it was - it was just scandalous. Our dirty laundry had been aired in that way.
CONAN: And nobody's heard of Spike Lee since.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GUY: Well, I had a lot to do with making Spike who he is today, but…
CONAN: (Unintelligible) Laurie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
LAURIE: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Jasmine Guy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Joan on the line. Joan with us from Portland.
JOAN (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to say that I do remember watching you in a show in the '80s and thought your character was quite different, but I have to admit that I have met some people that were very similar to your character. But most of all, I adored you on "Dead Like Me."
And that show was just so completely outrageous. And I wish it was going to be coming back on. It was one of the best things on television.
CONAN: Any chance that like some of the characters in that show it will come back to life?
Ms. GUY: You know, I loved doing "Dead Like Me." I thought it was clever. I never had any issue with the writing. You know, sometimes as an actor you go in, you're like what, what - you know, how am I going to make that work? Everything fit. And I felt the story lines were complex and interesting. I loved the actors that we - you know, made our little motley crew of grim reapers, but we were dropped. I mean in the middle of - at the end of our second season - by Showtime.
And it's one of those things that happens in the business that I certainly can't explain. I mean, I understand there was some kind of political transfer in the Showtime regime and we were dropped in that process. But I've always felt that that was not - we were not finished, that we, you know, the show wasn't done. I was excited about upcoming storylines for the characters. I loved how they explored real life issues in a sci-fi environment. And since then I've seen kind of knock-offs of the show…
Ms. GUY: …because I knew it wasn't done. You know, I knew like we had just tapped a nerve and it - and it hadn't run its course yet. And actually the creator of "Pushing Up Daisies" was the creator of "Dead Like Me." And I see common themes in "Pushing Up Daisies" that were in "Dead Like Me," because Bryan Fuller is - he is the brilliant mind behind that concept.
So I agree, I think that was - that was a mistake. We had - so we had more in us. We had more juice yet to come out of that show.
CONAN: Joan, thanks very much.
JOAN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: We just have a minute with you left, Jasmine Guy. But I want to ask, you're coming up to do this project about Langston Hughes. What is that about?
Ms. GUY: Well, the Lincoln Theater is celebrating the Harlem Renaissance on September 18th. And the Lincoln Theater is a historical black theater on U Street in D.C. And I do a piece called "Raising Cane" about Jean Toomer and the book "Cane." And the influence that Jean Toomer had on the Harlem Renaissance.
And I'm doing an excerpt of that one woman show for the celebration on Friday night. We can get tickets on (unintelligible) thelincoln.com, the code word is Langston.
But I have to say, we know Langston isn't the only wonderful artist out of that period. And politically and historically, the Harlem Renaissance is a fascinating time. It's a decade in our history between World War I and the Depression where a wealth of art - music, painting, poetry - just poured out of Harlem. And it was juxtaposed with all of this other stuff that was going on with Marcus Garvey, telling us to go back to Africa, and W.E.B. DuBois saying that the creme de la creme, the 10 percent of the black community, needs to bring up the rest. And Booker T. saying pull yourself up by the - your boot straps…
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: That music is…
Ms. GUY: So I just feel it's a fascinating time.
Ms. GUY: I know, I'm trying all this in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I know you are.
Ms. GUY: With my braces on.
CONAN: But I have to say thank you very much for being with us today. We thank you for your time.
Ms. GUY: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And join us at this time for the Political Junkie. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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