Never mind the stage — there’s drama aplenty in the twisty-turny life of Jasmine Hughes, a Southern pageant queen turned stage actor.
A year after driving to the Twin Cities from Mississippi to star in the world premiere of “Pussy Valley” at Mixed Blood Theatre — and hitting a deer en route in Apple Valley — she has come north again, this time for good.
Hughes has blazed a trail with roles that include a slave in “An Octoroon” at Mixed Blood, a same-sex partner in “Bright Half Life” at Pillsbury House Theatre and now the lead in Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” which begins previews Tuesday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
This whirlwind of opportunities was an unexpected blessing, she said. Three years ago, while trying to make a go of acting in New York, Hughes got pregnant. She decided to keep the child and moved home to Greenwood, Miss., where she took jobs teaching primary school science one year and high school English the next.
“I thought my acting dream was over,” she said. “And I was kind of dying inside.”
Out of the blue came a call from her grad-school mentor. There might be a part in a new Katori Hall play. Was she interested in auditioning?
“Pussy Valley,” which orbited the lives of workers in a strip club, was at odds with Hughes’ religious upbringing. None of her family came to see it. No matter.
“That call saved my soul, if not my life,” she said. “I had to sneak around to do it, taking pole dancing lessons a hundred miles away from home. I stepped out on faith, and it’s one of the best things I ever did.”
Now she’s stepping out on faith again, moving to the Twin Cities with 2-year-old daughter Brooklyn to pursue acting.
“Brooklyn is my blessing,” she said.
A child star on radio
Hughes has felt blessed since early on. Born in Mobile, Ala., she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Greenwood at age 3 or 4.
She does not talk much about her biological parents, only to say they were not ready for her. Her grandparents, who own two radio stations, offered stability and resources.
“She was a child star,” said her grandmother, Maxine Denham Hughes, who ran the business while her husband, Ruben, was a pioneering black disc jockey. “She was doing commercials, announcements, everything, starting at 5 or 6. She grew up on the air.”
That setting primed her for a career in front of the public. She attended the Piney Woods School, a predominantly black boarding school in southern Mississippi that often brought in dignitaries, including Oprah Winfrey. Hughes distinguished herself as a public speaker.
“They needed evidence of the good work they were doing, and because of my background in radio, I could always gab,” she said.
Hughes was offered scholarships to eight colleges. She chose Kent State in Ohio, intending to study education. But when she got there, she struggled to fit into an environment where the percentage of people of color could be counted on a single hand.
“I never felt comfortable and couldn’t function,” she said. She dropped out in her first year and returned home.
That was 2005. She would eventually enroll in Tougaloo College, a historically black liberal arts institution just north of the state capital of Jackson, Miss. “It felt like a big Piney Woods,” she said.
Hughes excelled in the humanities while participating in the college’s two major social outlets, pageants and sororities, winning the title of Miss Tougaloo (and becoming a Miss Mississippi semifinalist).
It was at Tougaloo, after starring in “Our Town” and Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” that she realized she wanted to be an actor. She applied to eight graduate schools and was rejected by all, including CalArts, her first choice.
“She wasn’t ready,” said Nataki Garrett, associate dean of theater at CalArts. Hughes moved to California anyway, staying with family and working. She applied again a year later, and this time Garrett accepted her, citing her growth and maturity.
A ‘twist of fate’ away
Hughes’ roles in “Pussy Valley” and “Octoroon” came through Garrett, who works frequently in the Twin Cities as a director. Hughes also has impressed local directors with her intellect and work ethic.
“She’s got that Mississippi drawl, which some people may equate with being slow, but make no mistake, she’s really bright and funny,” said Pillsbury House leader Faye Price.
Lou Bellamy, her director at Penumbra, said, “Jasmine has got levels to her emotions and talent that are immediately available to her. You can give her direction, and she goes there on a dime.”
Her character in “Sunset Baby,” Nina, is a street-tough drug dealer who is the abandoned love child of two black power activists. Her crack-addicted mother has died and her father, a revolutionary imprisoned for many years, suddenly reappears in her life.
“She’s basically had to raise herself,” Hughes said. “And she’s bitter about it. She craves her father’s love, but she also is upset about what went down.”
She feels the character is a kindred soul. “Nina is just a twist of fate and a lack of God’s grace from being me.”